Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

Modelling Adaptation?


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The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary was developed by Mick Kelly and Sarah Granich on behalf of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the International Institute for Environment and Development, with sponsorship from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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Ian Burton Ian Burton calls for adaptation modelling to inform a new authoritative review quantifying economy-wide adaptation benefits.
The author is an adaptation specialist and a lead author with Working Group II of the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Climate modellers regularly call for downscaling to help provide finer resolution of projected climate variables in order to model impacts with less uncertainty. For adaptation the need is for 'upscaling' to cumulate and integrate the fragmentary knowledge from myriad local studies. Until we can upscale adaptation, we will have no adequate measure of what adaptation could really do economy-wide to reduce impacts and vulnerability. Such measures would greatly strengthen the case for the serious incorporation of adaptation into the post-2012 regime.

The Stern Review of climate change economics suffers from this deficiency of adaptation models and economy-wide measures. It provides one scenario of what could follow from a failure to restrain greenhouse gas emissions. But the consequences described are largely gross impacts and not impacts net of adaptation. The review provides detailed economic analysis of the costs of ‘business as usual’ and only subsequently goes on to offer a very lukewarm endorsement of adaptation.

Adaptation is described by Stern as crucial, especially in developing countries, but "it cannot solve the problem by itself" (but nor, of course, can mitigation) and "there are limits to what it can achieve" (so also with mitigation). Adaptation costs are discussed primarily to show that they would rise rapidly without mitigation, not to show the need for adaptation now.

Stern also states that "adaptation is complex and many constraints have to be overcome", and "even with an appropriate policy framework, adaptation will be constrained both by uncertainty and technical limits." Hello! Whereas mitigation is simple and straightforward with no technical limits?

Describing worst case scenarios to inform the policy process about the extreme consequences of inaction is legitimate, but less so if it fails to consider human ingenuity. It is true that there is unequal access to modern capital-intensive and technology-dependent adaptation. But this can be changed.

It is also true that there are few studies of the economy-wide benefits and costs of adaptation, and that these provide very outdated estimates of impacts reduction based on Olympian top-down ‘analysis’ and heroic assumptions, but Stern fails to give adaptation the big helping hand it needs.

More serious efforts are needed to model adaptation, including the upscaling of local knowledge. But modelling adaptation is not an end in itself. It is needed quickly to inform a new Stern-like Review devoted to adaptation.

If adaptation is to be taken seriously in the policy-relevant economic literature, it will have to be quantitatively modelled at national, sectoral and global levels. A start might best be made through a sectoral approach.

Further information

Ian Burton, Environmental Adaptation Research Group, Environment Canada, 4905 Dufferin St, Downsview, Ontario M3H 5T4, Canada. Fax: +1-416-7394297. Email: ian.burton@ec.gc.ca. Web: www.msc-smc.ec.gc.ca/ACSD/airg/index_e.html.

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Updated: May 15th 2015