Adapting to Climate Change


Adapting to Global Warming: Four National Priorities

Adaptation to climate change falls into three categories with respect to information: 1) actions for which we do not need information that we do not already have; 2) actions that will become much more effective only with additional information that we could obtain; and 3) actions that will be insufficient for managing risks irrespective of additional information that we might gain.

The article by Bruce R. Guile and Rajul E. Pandya, “Adapting to Global Warming: Four National Priorities” (Issues, Summer 2018), is terrific. Their insight will be particularly valuable for addressing the second category of climate change adaptations: those that will become possible if we are effective in developing actionable information.

The authors illustrate the great opportunity we have to reduce climate damages through adaptation if we better understand the nature of the risks we face and the corrective actions that are available to us. Society would do well to pay close attention to the four priorities as we work on comprehensive climate change risk management. That would help in generating options to reduce or avoid climate damages that would be otherwise unavailable or less effective.

As we work on adapting to climate change, it will also be important to remember that some actions make sense with what we already know and some responses will be insufficient no matter what we know.

Accounting for these categories of response is critical to climate change risk management. We can already see ways to become more resilient to a range of plausible futures and to address existing vulnerabilities. Climate has been remarkably stable throughout the history of human civilization. But—this is key—we cannot say how much of greenhouse gases we can safely emit because we cannot know at what point we will trigger unacceptable climate damages. Adaptation will be critical, but also has its limits. Failure to avoid the societal consequences for which adaptation is insufficient would be a potentially catastrophic mistake.

There is a seeming paradox at the center of climate change risk management. We know a great deal about the climate system, the impact that human greenhouse gas emissions are having on climate, and the ways that people depend on climate. This knowledge and understanding comes from decades of intensive observations and research in multiple disciplines spanning the physical, natural, and social sciences. Nevertheless, there is a great deal we still do not know. Some of what we do not know about the societal consequences of climate change impacts cannot become known in advance.

This apparent paradox is a central challenge of climate change risk management. It makes it particularly difficult for society to agree about what actions make sense and to take them proactively.

Some actions don’t require additional information because they make sense already. Some climate change impacts are too severe for adaptation. If we keep those two facts in mind as we implement Guile and Pandya’s four national priorities, the nation will have the greatest chance to both build its capacity to cope with climate impacts and to comprehensively manage the risks of climate change.

Policy Program Director

American Meteorological society

Cite this Article

“Adapting to Climate Change.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 1 (Fall 2018).

Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Fall 2018