“There are no experts.”

This was my biggest take-away message from the inaugural National Adaptation Forum, held in Denver recently. Although it was my second major climate change adaptation conference in three weeks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In Europe, there’s no need to whisper the words “climate change” in large gatherings for fear of offending someone, but America is different. Would people even attend a three-day conference on adaptation? And what would the presenters talk about in the sessions? I jumped into a rental car and drove to Denver to find out.

The Forum’s organizers were curious too – to the point of being fretful. One organizer told the large crowd that filled the hotel ballroom on the opening day that registrations lagged so badly that one point she worried that the conference would be a failure. Then a last-minute rush of sign-ups occurred and suddenly the event was sold out! Over 500 people were in attendance, she said, with many more people on a waiting list. The excitement and relief in her voice were palpable (emotions I know well from hosting our own big conference). It reminded me of a satirical Onion piece titled: Owner of Children’s Hospital Thrilled That Every Bed Is Full! Welcome to the first-ever national conference on how bad things are getting out there! We’re thrilled you’re here to share your adaptation anxieties and tales of woe!

When it comes to climate change, we want the beds to be empty, not full. Alas, the beds are filling up fast, as I heard over and over.

What is adaptation anyway? One speaker usefully described it as a type of first responder – i.e., individuals, groups, communities, and cities who see the early effects of a warming world, sense an emergency in the making, and are taking action. First responders aren’t particularly interested in why the emergency happened. Their job is to deliver aid, fix things that are broken, troubleshoot, and deal with the mess generally. Many of the presenters at the Forum, for example, accept the inevitability of sea level rise and reported on a variety of plans by cities to adapt to the situation, however incrementally. Other speakers discussed faster-acting effects of climate change, particularly on plants and animals. Heat-induced stress or a lack of food brought on by drought conditions are beginning to impact a wide variety of species, they reported. In these cases, triage might be an appropriate metaphor.

Which raised a question in my mind: are we first responders to a roadside accident or a battlefield? Both, I learned. Accidents are happening now, but battlefields are coming. And it was made very clear that if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed soon we are all going to be living in battlefields of large proportions.

In other words, the effects of climate change are both acute and chronic, requiring different sorts of adaptation responses. On the acute side of the spectrum are: hotter weather, bigger storms, and more frost-free days. Triage here includes: maintaining human well-being day-to-day, dealing with natural disasters, repairing infrastructure, adjusting to distorted rhythms of nature and coping with the cost of it all. On the chronic side are: drought, sea level rise, acidifying oceans, rising risks of wildfire and disease outbreaks, and reduced values associated with nature. Adapting to these latter challenges is much more complex, partly because they are so unprecedented. An acidifying ocean? What’s the proper adaptation to that?

Adaptation is hard even when solutions are present. Translocation, for example. I attended a session that focused on the practice of moving animal species from one habitat to another in order to boost their chances of survival. It’s been done before, mostly with birds, including the endangered California condor, which had a population successfully translocated to southern Utah. Under climate change, however, the complicated job of introducing plants and animals to new habitats will grow long, daunting, and pressing. And that doesn’t even touch the moral quagmire of deciding which animal ‘gets on the ark’ and which stays behind. Talk about triage!

Sometimes, adaptation means coping with loss. I listened to a heart-breaking presentation by a member of the Snohomish tribe, many of whom live on a low-lying island northwest of Seattle. Storm surge and sea level rise threaten the existence of the island’s oyster and clam beds, which are a vital source of physical and spiritual sustenance to tribal members. Translocation isn’t an option for the shellfish (to where?), which means that sooner or later the tribe will have to make do without this critical resource. The speaker’s voice cracked as he described the oysters’ eventual demise, reminding his listeners that adaptation is as much about responsibility as it is about vulnerability.

Speaking of food, I didn’t see a single cowboy hat in the course of the three days. Worse, out of 100+ individual concurrent sessions, only one focused on agriculture – and it had only a dozen participants. During an evening plenary session, I stood up and told the audience that first responders need to think about farmers and ranchers too.

Although there was a great deal of talk about risk, vulnerability, resilience, planning and stress during the conference, by the end I had the distinct impression that we are very ill-prepared for the messy battlefield ahead. “There are no experts,” was a common refrain during the conference. We’re in uncharted water, dealing with unprecedented conditions, and trying to imagine the unimaginable. In engineering terms, we’ve left “stationarity” behind – which is the assumption that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability. In other words, we can no longer use historic experience to plan for future scenarios. The term “100-year flood,” for instance, doesn’t mean what it used to. Instead of stationarity, we need a new paradigm that emphasizes flexibility in management practices and legal processes. We’ll need a new type of first responder too.

That’s why it wasn’t a coincidence that the formation of a new organization was announced at the Forum. It’s called the American Association of Adaptation Professionals. I bet its ranks will fill quickly.

They’ll have an important question to answer: tweak or transformation?

In most of the sessions, the speakers pitched only tweaks to the Status Quo – a water conservation plan here, a ‘green’ building there, a research study in this place, a task force in that place. Representatives from major cities especially seemed reluctant propose any sort of major overhaul of Business-as-Usual despite, say, the inevitability of substantial sea level rise. It was good and important that the crisis was acknowledged by the speakers, and everyone seemed quite earnest in their concern, but most of their adaptation strategies fell short of the mark, in my opinion. In contrast, a few speakers and audience members argued that only transformational change – how we live, where we get our food and water, what type of energy we use – would adequately prepare us for the challenges ahead. In one session, a listener grew agitated at what he considered to be a band-aid approach to the developing catastrophe. “Without wholesale change,” he said, “we’re just fooling ourselves into a false sense of security.”

I agree. But how? And who do we trust to lead the way? Tweaks are necessary in the short run, as the effects of climate change begin to bite down, but ultimately we must challenge fundamental assumptions about our lives – before they’re made for us. We’re leaving stationarity behind in more ways than one, whether we like it or not, and that means we’re all first responders now.

Here’s a humorous image from a presentation by one of the speakers on drought:


By the way, everyone should read the new National Climate Assessment. It’s a congressionally-mandated, federally-directed scientific analysis of the extent and impacts of global warming on the United States. See http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/

Here is quick summary of its Findings:

(1) Global climate is changing and this is apparent across the U.S. in a wide range of observations. The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels. Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities. Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.

(2) Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly challenging across the nation throughout this century and beyond. Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, and threats to mental health. Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected, reliability of water supplies is being reduced, and adverse impacts to crops and livestock over the next 100 years is expected.

(3) Natural ecosystems are being directly affected by climate change, including changes in biodiversity and location of species. As a result, the capacity of ecosystems to moderate the consequences of disturbances such as droughts, floods, and severe storms is being diminished. Life in the oceans is changing as ocean waters become warmer and more acidic.

Continued warming and an increased understanding of the U.S. temperature record, as well as other multiple sources of evidence, have strengthened our confidence in the conclusions that the warming trend is clear and primarily the result of human activities. Heavy precipitation and extreme heat events are increasing in a manner consistent with model projections; the risks of such extreme events will rise in the future.

Carbon dioxide is not reactive, so it does not have a “lifetime.” It persists in the atmosphere until it is absorbed by the oceans or taken up as part of the carbon cycle. About half the CO2 emitted at any one time is removed from the atmosphere in a century. However, around 20% continue to circulate for thousands of years. Stabilizing or reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, therefore, requires very deep reductions in future emissions to compensate for past emissions that are still circulating in the Earth system.

“The amount of warming over the next few decades is projected to be similar regardless of emissions scenario.”

Sounds like job security for Adaptation Professionals!

It’s not all gloomy news, as I’ll to explain in the next post. There are things we can do in the short run that have substantial co-benefits for all living things.

But we should be careful as well about the opposite of gloomy: overconfidence. We can’t sit around waiting for technology to ride to our rescue. Nor can we rely on precedent and instinct to get us through, as it has in the past. We need to be careful. Here’s why: