Adaptation Gap with Climate Change

640px-2011_Texas_DroughtAlthough there is no uncertainty that climate change is happening and that the significant addition of GHG by human activity is accelerating this change globally, there is still some questions on what will be the impact on a regional and local scale. The global models largely agree on a macro level of potential climate outcomes, however, it becomes more uncertain as to what climate impacts will be seen in communities. With limited budgets, a growing number of certain/known fiscal and social responsibilities, it is very difficult for a city to take action on climate specific problems. They know these problems are coming, it definitely could be more than one, but which one should they focus on adapting too? Extreme heat? Drought? Flooding? All three events were experienced in Houston in the last few years. How does a city prioritize when it is difficult to determine the impact and the actual vulnerability of the city to any specific climate induced event?

This uncertainty at the city level is resulting in an adaptation gap.  The gap is the difference between existing adaptation efforts and adaptation need. This gap is largely a result of an inability to prioritize specific adaptation actions due to uncertainty as to what the near and long-term climate impacts will look like, as well as a difficulty in assessing the short and long term cost/benefit of taking a specific adaptation action. There is growing effort in the climate adaptation field that work to overcome this gap. The first effort is to better understand the efficacy of adaptation outcomes. Carelton and Hsiang’s (2016) recent work looks at determining a better methodology to determine when, where and why climate adaptation is successful and to better quantify how adaptation related investments today will impact future social and economic outcomes. In parallel with this effort, Chen et al (2016) are developing a framework that helps local communities prioritize their adaptation efforts. This framework helps cities to identify and frame risks to the community by taking into account the level of uncertainty of any specific event occurring and the magnitude of such event. Second, the framework helps to identify specific options that a city can consider for each event. These options range from a “no regrets” option, i.e. these solutions solve existing city problems and the city would be taking action regardless of climate factors; to tertiary adaptation options that require large scale investment and irreversible outcomes. The benefit of such a framework allows cities to assess their vulnerability based on the certainty and magnitude of specific climate events and to begin to prioritize options to deal with the events.

In a time of increasing climate risk and smaller city coffers, it is imperative that cities are knowledgeable of the frameworks and tools available to protect their community.


Published by

Gavin Dillingham

Program Director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC a sustainability research institute in The Woodlands, TX. Work on climate adaptation and investment strategies for resilient infrastructure.

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