by Judith Curry
Last week, I was privileged to host the UK-US Workshop on Climate Science Needed to Support Robust Adaptation Decisions.
The website for the Workshop is [here]. The Workshop was held in Atlanta on the Georgia Tech campus Feb 6/7. From the website:
This Workshop addresses the recognized gap between what science is currently providing in terms of information about climate variability and change and the information desired by decision makers, whether in government or business, to make robust development and adaptation plans for managing climate-related risks and responding to opportunities. The Workshop brings together experts on decision making under uncertainty and climate change adaptation with leading climate dynamicists and modelers that are engaged in decision support. The focus is on timescales out to 2050 and regional scales.
Towards bridging the gap between climate information (supply) and decision making (demand) on regional and decadal time scales, the following questions emerge:
- Are decision makers asking the right questions related to climate variability and change?
- Are climate scientists answering questions of relevance to decision makers?
- What questions are we not asking?
- What are the institutional structures, decision processes, and modes of engagement among information users and producers that allows us to ask and answer the right questions about actionable climate information?
The objectives of the workshop are to:
- Identify strategies that can help bridge the gap between climate information (supply) and decision making (demand) on regional and decadal time scales;
- Explore the potential for new collaborations between UK-US;
- Identify future research priorities and strategies.
Support for the Workshop was provided by the UK Commonwealth and Foreign Office, the British Consulate General-Atlanta, Georgia Tech, the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, NOAA, Climate Forecast Applications Network.
This Workshop was motivated by two previous Workshops organized by the Royal Society, that Peter Webster and I were privileged to attend. The first Workshop was the 2010 Royal Society Discussion Meeting on Handling Uncertainty in Science. That meeting discussed very broad issues in the uncertainty of science across many fields, but there was a clear interest in the topic of climate change. This motivated the climate scientist attendees (myself, Webster, Brian Hoskins, Lenny Smith and Tim Palmer) to propose a follow on workshop related to climate. Tim Palmer then organized the 2012 Royal Society Workshop on Handling Uncertainty in Weather and Climate Prediction, with Application to Health, Agronomy, Hydrology, Energy and Economics. That Workshop focused more on the shorter timescales (daily to seasonal) where probabilistic forecast methods are being successfully applied across a range of applications.
There was a sense that we needed another follow on workshop to address the challenge of using climate models and other information to support adaptation decisions. Attendees at the second Workshop, in addition to the original 5, included Simon Buckle and Rob Wilby, who joined me in organizing the recent US-UK Workshop (Simon as co-chair). Subsequently joining us on the organizing committee were Rob Lempert of the Rand Corporation and Roger Pulwarty from NOAA. The organizing committee invited a diverse group of individuals from academia, governments, NGOs and the private sector, selected for their innovations and new ideas in addressing climate adaptation, breadth of perspective, ability to engage with a diverse group, and perceived willingness to think outside the box. Of the final list of attendees, only a third of them were known to me prior to the Workshop.
The Workshop turned out to be fascinating; one participant referred to it as an ‘intellectual feast.’ Many new ideas were generated and some new collaborations were spawned. A key objective is that the outcome of this workshop extends beyond an elite ‘gabfest’ so that the Workshop proceedings and conclusions are made available to a broader segment of interested scientists and the public. We would also like to see this Workshop contribute to the broader public dialogue on climate adaptation. Towards widening the exposure to this Workshop and broadening the discussion on these topics, I will be doing several blog posts on the presentations and discussion.
Information gaps and needs for investing in climate resilience
This first post addresses the following presentations from the ‘demand’ side, presenting perspectives from the UNFCCC, development, public health, and security. Click on the title of the talk for the .ppt presentation.
Xianfu Lu – UNFCCC Secretariat: Climate science in support of adaptation decisions under the UNFCCC
This talk provided an overview of the discussions on adaptation issues under the UNFCCC, including the organization and the ‘machinery’ of the workings of the UNFCCC. There are three core areas of adaptation under the UNFCCC: global policy responses, national implementation, and implementation strategies (finance, technology and capacity development). The key science question of concern: Is the 2C warming as a long-term global goal adequate? Should this be strengthened to 1.5C? Addressing this question requires: assessing critical thresholds within food production, ecological and socioeconomic systems; impacts of warming in different regions and sectors; and assessing the impacts of exceeding these thresholds. The talk provided an excellent list of more detailed questions aimed at addressing ancillary issues raised by trying to deal with the big questions and implementation of policies. The need for framing the science needs in actionable terms was emphasized.
Yvan Biot – UK Department for International Development : Climate information and decision making in development and development assistance
The talk began by asking: Who and what? Who – citizens, business, governments, international system; context matters. With regards to: What do they need to know, three questions were raised:
- Do we need to something urgently?
- Can we do something sensible now to prepare ourselves for the future?
- What can we just let happen?
An overview was given of UK DFID an AID, in terms of priorities and instruments used. A key objective is to build resilience in changing times. He characterized climate change as a wicked problem. Biot emphasized the importance of the vulnerability context. A nice table was included with tools to deal with various levels and types of uncertainty in the decision making context.
Three timescales for adaptation were presented:
- Next few years: protection against extreme events; address current adaptation deficit
- Development time scale – 2020’s – disaster risk reduction
- Longer term – towards 2050: adaptationto long term trend; act iteratively as risks evolve
Biot also argued that we don’t need to worry too much about uncertainty.
Janani Vivekananda – International Alert: Climate Resilience in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Societies
This talked addressed understanding the linkages between climate change and security, and approaches to addressing links between climate, resilience and peace. Concepts of vulnerability, resilience and adaptation were defined. Conflicts (wars) in the 21st century were mapped out, and population pressures were discussed. If climate change is a ‘risk multiplier’ which interacts with pre-existing social, economic and political risks, making peace and stability harder to achieve, ten addressing the pre-existing root causes of vulnerability will help build resilience to climate change and contribute to stability. In addressing problems in an individual region, it is important to understand complexities so as to avoid maladaptation, where resources are wasted to do something that doesn’t help beyond the short term. Approaches to the climate-resilience-peace nexus: focus on resilience, rethinking development, getting the institutions right, face the challenges of migration, peace positive low-carbon economy.
This presentation discussed the range of potential health effects of climate variability and change. Key health threats include: climate change impacts that add to the cumulative stresses currently faced by vulnerable populations; societal system failures during extreme events; lare-scale environmental changes that result in shifting pest ranges, lack of immunity, inadequate monitoring. Moderating influences include population density and growth, technological development, standard of living, local environmental conditions, pre-existing health status, quality and access to health care, public health infrastructure. Adaptation measures include vaccination programs, disease surveillance, protective technologies, weather forecasting and warnings, emergency management and disaster preparedness, public health education and prevention, legislation and administration. The presentation concluded that the climate change and health field is still in early days, and that there are opportunities now for advancing the science through development of models and conduct of assessments,
JC reflections: These presentations reflect the ‘demand’ side for climate information to support adaptation decisions. One objective for the Workshop is to assess whether decision makers are asking the same questions that scientists think they are answering. Upon reflecting on the presentations by Lu and Biot, I see two different framings of the climate adaptation problem and its solutions, with substantial differences in the type of climate information needed to support decision making.
The key question for the UNFCCC: ‘Is the 2C warming as a long-term goal adequate?’ raises a wide range of secondary questions to be addressed (some of which are included in Lu’s presentation). With regards to loss and damage (discussed in this previous post), this implies the need to attribute loss and damage to AGW versus other climate and confounding factors, which is something that climate science can’t provide much guidance on. Lu then makes the statement: “But even if we have perfect answers to all those questions, the ultimate answer to the review question, and the decisions on means to address loss and damage inevitably entail value judgment and political/diplomatic resolution, and would go beyond the methods and insights of climate science.” It seems to me that all of this (including the primary questions) are beyond what climate science can provide. Climate science and the UNFCCC need for information at this point seems to me to be a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
As per Biot’s presentation, DFID doesn’t seem to worry about distinguishing whether climate change is natural or anthropogenic, and doesn’t look beyond 2050 in terms of its decision making horizon. The climate-relevant information desired by DFID is identification of the risks, vulnerability and impacts from climate change. DFID looks at the continuum of vulnerabilities to climate, including protection against extreme events that are happening now (for whatever reason). I think the timescales and challenges as posed by the DFID can be usefully informed by climate science.
Without assessing the relative merits of the UNFCCC versus the DFID framing of the climate adaptation problem (morally, politically, whatever), it seems to me that the DFID framing of the adaptation problem is something that can be more usefully informed by climate science than the UNFCCC framing.
The DFID framing as presented by Biot doesn’t say anything about mitigation; DFID is focused on development and the risks from climate change out to 2050. With regards to CO2 mitigation, the timescale of interest out to 2050 precludes mitigation policies as making much of a difference. Mitigation was mentioned primarily in context of Lu’s presentation, and is obviously a major concern of the UNFCCC. The early focus of the UNFCCC on mitigation policies have arguably led the adaptation problem and its solutions in a direction that relies on ‘mitigation-relevant science’ (i.e. sensitivity and attribution of global climate change), rather than trying to understand regional risk in the context of vulnerability.
In summary, at this point in the evolution of climate science and policy responses to climate change, I see a more fertile path forward for climate science to provide useful information to support DFID policies, whereas I see some potentially unanswerable questions in the UNFCCC framing of the problem (which seem ripe for politicization). Note, these are my own post-workshop reflections, I did not raise the issue at the Workshop as to whether we are asking useful meta-questions about climate change.
Note: This is the first of several topical posts related to the workshop presentations. The next post will discuss climate-related issues from the perspective of the private sector. Please keep your responses on topic and civil, I will moderate the Workshop threads more heavily than usual.