Thursday, March 12, 2009

Adaptation has its limiits

Kate Ravilous in Environmental Research Web: The mercury is rising and, whether we like it or not, the world's climate is going to change significantly over the coming decades. For some people this will mean suffering frequent summer heat-waves, for others it will be coping with floods, or an increased likelihood of tropical storms. One way of mitigating climate change is to accept that it is going to happen and help people to adapt – a philosophy that current policy makers are considering. However, in a paper published in Climatic Change, Neil Adger from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK, and colleagues argue that there are limits to adaptation and that we would be unwise to rely solely on adaptation as a mitigation measure.

In the past mankind has shown great ingenuity in overcoming changes in climate and adapting to unfavourable conditions. Irrigation and terracing has enabled farmers to grow crops on what would otherwise have been marginal land. The advent of weather forecasting has allowed people to prepare for bad weather and minimise the damage it causes. Meanwhile, we are all able to share the risk of extreme weather events by purchasing insurance.

So can we continue to adapt successfully, maintaining a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous society despite the challenges of a rapidly changing climate? To answer this question Adger and his colleagues have examined some of the assumptions associated with adaptation, and have come up with four domains that they believe underscore the limits to our adaptation.

In their paper the researchers urge policy makers to consider ethics (how and what we value), knowledge (how and what we know), risk (how and what we perceive) and culture (how and why we live) when assessing adaptation strategies.....

Photo of waves at Asilomar Beach in California by Tewy, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

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