Why adapting to climate change is so difficult

A Mexican woman skirts a Jaguey water hole, February 4, 2006 near San Marcos Tlacoyalco, Mexico. 

The newest report on climate change is out from the U.N. Researchers say climate change is already affecting many parts of the world—rising sea levels, heat waves. Now is the time to adapt. But figuring out how to adapt, even if you put politics aside, can be incredibly tricky for a few reasons.

People do OK handling risks we’ve experienced. “We do a pretty good job of preparing for some infectious diseases, with getting children vaccinated,” said Ben Orlove, a co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. “We put we put strong housing codes into effect in earthquake prone areas.”

But, people are less good at preparing for threats that aren’t familiar -- threats like climate change. “It’s hard for us to accept risks that are uncertain, and that are far in the future,” said Orlove.

The uncertainty and the future nature of many climate change impacts, makes difficult decisions about adaptation even more difficult. 

Who should adapt? Who should pay to adapt?

 How should communities use land?

“How are you going to make all these decisions when you can’t tell them exactly at what level the sea rise is going to affect them in 2030, 2040, 2050?” said Dan Mazmanian, a professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

He calls the best strategy for moving ahead “adaptive management for adaptation.” Communities adapt, and then stay flexible to adapt the way they adapt.

Many climate models look out to a future that’s too far away for us to imagine, said Mazmanian. Instead, we ought to be thinking a few decades out.  And then rethinking the rules again, and again, as the science and future gets clearer.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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