Voices: Making tough decisions in a changing climate

by Kelly Levin and Polly Ghazi
Thursday, May 3, 2012

Climate change may affect weather patterns. Copyright Digital Vision

World leaders are beginning to realize that planning for and adapting to our changing climate must become a priority of national governments. But what does that mean, in practical terms, for planning and policymaking, and for the day-to-day business of government? Do standard decision-making practices need to change? If so, how?

Although governments are accustomed to wrestling with complex global issues, climate change presents a unique combination of challenges. A major new report by the World Resources Institute, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme and World Bank, “World Resources 2010-2011: Decision Making in a Changing Climate,” argues that these challenges require different attitudes and approaches to decision-making if the world is to adapt effectively to a warmer tomorrow.

The unique challenge of climate change is that the range of possible impacts is so wide — and the timescales so variable — that they defy easy solutions.

Climate change is not simply an environmental issue; it crosses economic sectors from energy and water supply to forestry, agriculture, transport and national planning. Rising global temperatures will also bring a broad range of possible impacts, over timescales of many decades, and will affect people and ecosystems the world over.

The World Resources Report categorizes three different types of change to Earth’s system that we’re likely to encounter: more frequent or intense climate extremes, heightened variability, and long-term change. And, in a very difficult scenario for policymakers, all three types of change can occur at the same time. India, the world’s second most populous nation, faces just such a situation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the subcontinent will experience more intense rains over fewer days, triggering both an increase in monsoon floods and an overall decrease in rainfall. Such circumstances create the potential for a cascade of impacts on vital resources such as water supply, for which public officials must prepare, especially given expected growth in India’s water demand.

Whereas scientists may have a good idea about the impacts of climate change on India, other places face highly uncertain consequences. As a result, governments must prepare for an array of possible climatic impacts that could play out in biological, hydrological and physical systems at a variety of rates and magnitudes. To give just one example of the dilemmas this entails, climate models predict that, by 2050, annual rainfall in Ghana could range anywhere from 65 percent less to 49 percent more than 2010 levels. This has huge implications for water supply and energy planners, who must make decisions about infrastructure — such as dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric power plants — that encompass very different possible futures.

Some countries have begun to contend with these challenges. In England, for example, managers of the Thames River have created decision route-maps to plan for uncertain sea-level rise that could threaten London. This decision-making tool enables planners to take incremental short-term action that does not foreclose the option of taking more aggressive and expensive action later, if needed. Tools like this can help governments roll out robust adaptation strategies over years or decades.

Another major issue that decision-makers need to consider is the vulnerability of local populations and ecosystems. A cyclone that strikes Australia will not have the same human, economic and social impact as one of the same severity that hits Bangladesh.

Many developing countries are on the frontline of climate change. Already, development efforts are being undercut by extreme weather events, such as the 2011 floods in Thailand, and by heightened variability, such as altered monsoon patterns that affect crop production and livelihoods with devastating results. Many affected communities are already vulnerable due to poverty, poor land management practices and conflict, both within and between countries.

It is therefore critically important that planners and policymakers in developing countries design interventions to reduce climate risks that take the vulnerability of affected populations into account and that help reduce rather than entrench poverty.

Some governments have begun to do this by incorporating vulnerability in their planning. Maps are one prominent and easily understood tool that can be used to identify both climate risks and those populations and ecosystems most vulnerable to specific climate impacts. Bangladesh, for example, has produced detailed hazard maps for its entire coastline and three earthquake-vulnerable cities — information that planners are using to inform city planning, disaster preparedness and adaptation activities.

Meeting these challenges will involve difficult tradeoffs, such as balancing short- and long-term risks and choosing among policy options with profound implications for societies (such as whether to evacuate vulnerable coastal cities), to a much greater extent than is common today. These tradeoffs are especially pronounced in the resource-constrained developing world.

The first types of tradeoffs lend themselves to “low regrets” adaptation measures — for example, the embrace of water-saving agricultural techniques that contribute to national development goals while also enhancing climate resilience. When it comes to longer-term adaptation measures and looming tradeoffs regarding which populations and ecosystems will receive priority attention for adaptation efforts and which will lose out, governments will need to engage their citizens early and often.

Climate change also brings into sharp relief the generational tradeoffs: how much to invest in addressing today’s urgent problems versus those of tomorrow. Leaders generally elected for brief terms of office face enormous pressure to make short-term decisions. But this undermines the long-term decision-making needed to tackle a challenge of the size and scope of climate change.

Existing planning processes tend to prioritize current risks — understandably, given the pressing nature of hunger, lack of shelter, and other development needs. There exists no protocol for how to address such temporal tradeoffs. Should a West African country with severely limited resources, for example, prioritize stemming the spread of HIV, or preparing physical defenses against predicted sea-level rise that will swamp its coastal cities? Again, these value-laden questions will need to be debated by each nation’s public.

In negotiating such tricky terrain, the World Resources Report argues that well-established participatory approaches can help government ministries and agencies pursue fair and effective processes. Some governments have already embraced public engagement in prioritizing adaptation activities. For example, while developing its National Adaptation Programme of Action, Sudan involved a wide range of stakeholders in setting priorities. First, stakeholders in five different ecological zones of the country developed criteria for evaluating adaptation projects, and then ranked 32 projects in order of importance. Then national level specialists, development practitioners and nongovernmental organizations were asked to endorse the priorities suggested by the regional groups and advise on implementation.

Although adapting to a changing climate presents national decision-makers with unprecedented challenges, some governments are responding in innovative and creative ways. Bangladesh, for example, has developed a pioneering early warning system. Brazil is using satellite and observational data to quickly target climate-induced forest fire outbreaks in the Amazon. China is shifting crops in its main agricultural region to drought-resistant varieties that can withstand a warmer world.

These and other examples demonstrate that national governments can make smart and strategic choices to prepare for the impacts of climate change. What’s needed now is for more governments to embrace such initiatives, along with new ways of thinking, to adapt to a warmer world.

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