The Adaptation Disconnect: Evidence and Action

Banksy-I-Dont-Believe-In-Global-Warming-3-700x525An article in the Houston Chronicle on Sunday, provided a great example of the current issues that are hampering cities’ climate adaptation planning. I discussed this issue in an earlier blog post about the adaptation gap. The adaptation gap is the difference between adaptation efforts and adaptation need. This gap is largely a result of uncertainty by key decision makers regarding the impact of climate change on their communities.

This adaptation gap is on full display in the Chronicle article. Harris County and City of Houston officials, responsible for flood mitigation and stormwater management for the region, are reluctant to take any significant action toward flood mitigation infrastructure because of uncertainty of future flood events. Their rationale is that this community is prone to extreme events, both floods and droughts, and it is not possible to say that climate change will have any significant impact on these events in the future. Harris County and the City are waiting on more evidence before they feel it is necessary to invest a whole lot more in flood mitigation efforts. An additional study to better understand the climate and weather linkage is underway.

On the other side, you have insurance companies and climate scientists arguing we have more than enough evidence that climate change is making weather events more extreme.  Some good examples are the Global Risk Report of 2016 and Munich RE’s Natural Catastrophe Services which reported 160 North American insurance loss events, the most since 1980. Also, according to the National Flood Insurance Program, all but 2 of the last 15 most expensive flood insurance programs have happened since 2000. Five of the 15 happened in the Houston region. This includes Hurricane Ike #3; Tropical Storm Allison #9; Hurricane Rita #11; Memorial Day Flood #14 and the Tax Day Flood #15. The total is about $5 billion in flood insurance payouts for these events.

Further, the Louisiana 1000 year flash floods, in August 2016, was recently studied by a team from NOAA that demonstrates a strong linkage between climate change and extreme weather events. According to this study, climate change increased the intensity of these storms by 10% and the likelihood of this storm occurring by 40%. Further, even without these specific event studies, basic understanding of the hydrological cycle would indicate that there is a higher likelihood of extreme flooding events on the horizon in a wet climate like Houston’s. Texas Tech University Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe, quoted in the Chronicle article, does a great job explaining how we are seeing an increasing number of extreme weather events in her Global Weirding video series.

However, even with this mounting evidence, there is a disconnect. The information is still not being communicated in a way that allows key decision makers to feel less uncertain about climate change and more willing to invest the political, human and financial capital to adapt.  Both public and private sector decision makers need to have a better idea as to the climate risks they are facing in the near and long-term. The ambiguity around future outcomes makes it difficult to identify appropriate strategies to manage future risk. Also, there is a gap between available scientific information and the demand for information framed in the context of risk and uncertainty making it difficult to make decisions. There are many cases where risk assessments and climate impact studies provide range of outcomes, but with little information on their probability distributions. When budgets are tight and political capital is hard to come by, making decisions based on a range of outcomes is difficult. The role for scientists and climate change communicators is to make these decision makers feel they have more actionable information. This requires that what is communicated is not the standard line that  “you are going to have a lot more flooding in the next 20 years.” A city cannot do anything with this information. Rather it should be more , “there is a 75% change your community will experience 5-6 500 year floods in the next 10 years.” The city can then weigh its other risks and obligations against this information and take action. This can be done and it needs to be done, if we want cities to take the necessary steps to adapt their communities for climate change.

(As a side note, Dr. Hayhoe was was in Houston to speak at HARC’s People and Nature Speaker Series. She is returning to Houston on April 30. She has done a great job with several cities in helping them better understand their risks to climate change. The City of Chicago is a good example.)


Climate Refugees in the United States


Since 2009 over 22.5 million people have become climate refugees (IDMC 2015). These refugees of clmate changeare people that are forced to move because their communities are no longer inhabitable, whether this is from sea-level rise, floods, severe droughts, hurricanes, etc. Americans typically think of climate refugees as something that is happening somewhere else in a distant land. Which is true. There have been climate refugees in Africa and the Middle East for years; 2011 droughts in Somalia, 2010 floods in Pakistan and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to name a few significant crises.

Although climate refugees has been a concern for primarily third world countries, the United States is now starting to witness climate refugee issues within its own borders. In January 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a grant to help 13 states rebuild and strengthen their infrastructure. $48 million of this grant is going to the effort of actually relocating an entire community, Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. This is the first time federal grant dollars have been used to move a community due to climate change. Also, in 2016, the Inupiat Eskimo village of Shishmaref, Alaska, held a vote to determine whether they should relocate from their coastal home to higher ground. Over the last 35 years the island community lost over 2,500 feet of land to erosion. (There are another 31 other Alaskan communities at imminent risk of destruction due to sea-level rise.) Both the Louisiana and Alaska communities have decided it may be better to rebuild elsewhere, than to continue to fight back rising sea levels.

On a wider scale, this week a new study by Matt Hauer at the University of Georgia was published in Nature Climate Change. This study considers the impact of climate change on climate refugees in the United States out to the year 2100. Over this time period it is anticipated that US coastal areas will witness sea level rise of over 6 feet. This increase in sea level could potentially displace 13 million people.  The big losers in this sea level rise are Miami and New Orleans. The big “winners” would be Austin/Round Rock, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Unfortunately, these cities that are expected to take on climate refugees, all have significant water supply issues. Kind of an out of the frying pan into the fire type of scenario.

There is no uncertainty that the sea level will rise and people will be displaced. We already see it happening. However, because Hauer’s study projects so far into the future, there is much uncertainty as to what the migration patterns will look like. The immigrant receiving cities may be facing their own climate crisis and may not be able to receive additional people into their communities. With all of this occurring, it is key that Cities start planning appropriately for climate adaptation. This includes not only making their infrastructure, economy and community more resilient and adapted to forthcoming severe weather events, but to also start thinking about these large population shifts. Beyond the grant from HUD to the Isle de Jean Charles Community and a tiny sum of $2 million to the Inupiat Eskimo by the Obama Administration, not much has been coming from the federal government to help. It will largely be up to local communities and states to take the appropriate action to improve their communities’ resilience. Some cities that appear to be on the right track for adaptation planning are: San Antonio, San Diego Miami, Los Angeles, New York.

Some resources for communities to consider would be:


  • – a federal resource providing helpful technical assistance

Becoming less uncertain about climate change

Much of the delay in climate adaptation planning is because of the uncertainty surrounding actual impacts to our communities and the severity of these impacts. This Allison Flood Houstonuncertainty is trumpeted by our new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and by the House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith as reason to not take action. They argue the models do not all agree and the models suggest there is still much uncertainty as to the role humans have on our changing climate. However, like the planet’s polar bears, the iceberg they are standing on is becoming smaller each day.

Climate scientists for years have been able to say with certainty that human activities are directly influencing the climate. This all started about 200 years ago with French Mathematician Joseph Fourier and scientists’ continued to develop their understanding of the role of human activities on greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere to present day. You can see the entire timeline of greenhouse gas discovery at Dr. Katharine Hayhoe’s Global Weirding series.

In March of this year, the climate scientist scored another victory for certainty with a new study conducted by Mann et al, published in Nature Scientific Reports. This report provides an even stronger link between man-made global warming and extreme weather events. Through both observation of real data and the use of the CMIP5 historical climate model, brought to you by the nation’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab, they were able to show that the air streams that circle our planet are not acting as expected and this funny behavior can be attributed to a rapidly warming arctic. By the air streams not shifting, or undulating, as they have historically, but rather staying stuck in place, persistent weather patterns occur that result in extreme weather events. Check out the article by John Abraham at The Guardian to get a great breakdown of the study.