Researchers Propose New Strategies to Adapt to Climate Change

According to a recent research review, policymakers and researchers are not thinking expansively when it comes to adapting to the impacts of climate change.

A wave crashing into the shore in front of a row of houses
Much of the climate change adaptation research to date has focused on household-level responses to hazards like this 2019 storm surge that led to coastal flooding in southern Maine. Image Credit: Arthur Villator/Shutterstock.

The study’s authors argue that instead of focusing more on how individuals react to climate problems like wildfires and flooding, society should understand the kind of measures it would take to motivate collective action. This is because such an action will protect human beings from the catastrophic effect of climate change on a much larger scale.

Scientists from Ohio State University looked at studies that have been published so far on behavioral adaptation to climate change.

The researchers discovered that in the face of isolated catastrophic events, a majority of the studies have highlighted the mindset behind individual coping methods, coming from the standpoint of single households handling their own risk.

According to the researchers, there is a need for systems-level thinking about what is actually adaptive for society, to analyze the dynamics that make people change whole systems via transformational actions, and to look at the kinds of obstacles that prevent people from accepting transformative efforts.

What we know about adaptation has come from a longer history of studying the sorts of things that are getting worse because of climate change. If we want to really adapt to climate change, we’re talking about transformational change that will truly allow society to be resilient in the face of these increasing hazards. We’re focused on the wrong things and solving the wrong problems.

Robyn Wilson, Study Lead Author and Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University

The research review was recently published in the Nature Climate Change journal on February 10th, 2020.

However, Wilson and collaborators are, by no means, criticizing their peer researchers, or themselves. The research review became a platform to sound a warning when the incremental nature of the adaptation study became obvious—when it comes to being prepared for all that climate change is likely to bring, individuals can no longer remain complacent.

Thinking holistically is part of what transformation research is all about – saying we have to work together to really think differently,” Wilson added. “We can’t all be individually running around doing our own thing. We need to think beyond the selfish individual who says, ‘What do I need to do to be better off?’”

For instance, the preservation of a coastal community can be considered in this case. Present activities may comprise constructing municipal floodwalls and—as individuals—shifting important items to higher ground and allowing insurance to take care of the issues as they emerge.

But according to the study’s authors, looking at a relatively larger picture may ask whether the seaside community should exist at all.

According to Wilson, there was a period when scientists were afraid to study adaptation because they believed that it would take the efforts and attention away from mitigation—addressing the factors that are responsible for climate change and not its impacts.

Eventually, there was a recognition that we have to do both. We don’t really have a choice. We have to adapt while also mitigating so we can try to avoid the really catastrophic outcomes that will come down the road for children today. The worst-case things aren’t happening tomorrow, but they’re happening on a time frame that will impact people we care about.

Robyn Wilson, Study Lead Author and Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University

From a biological standpoint, adaptation is needed for survival. Is there a likelihood that the human species would be threatened by those impacts?

While many civilizations have not worked out, Wilson does not believe that humans are likely to become extinct even in the worst case of climate situation: that is, global warming of 8 or 9 °F toward the end of the 21st century.

Somebody’s going to survive,” she added. “It’s more a question of social equity and social justice.

Fast-forward a couple hundred years and someone will be here. But if we don’t think from a more transformative standpoint of how society should be structured and where we should live and how we should live, there will be a lot of losers—those with the least resources and low socioeconomic status and people in developing countries.

Robyn Wilson, Study Lead Author and Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science, School of Environment and Natural Resources, Ohio State University

Wilson continued, “We’re living in a different world and we need to think differently about how we do things so we’re all equally able to survive.”

The study was co-authored by Wilson’s collaborators Atar Herziger, Matt Hamilton, and Jeremy Brooks from the School of Environment and Natural Resources of Ohio State University.


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