Impacts assessment: the Mikado’s little list[3]

Although adaptation as an issue has not been entirely ignored in the past, the scientific and academic literature appears to have blossomed only in the last two or three years.

Contributors to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are aware of the body’s comparative neglect of adaptation issues over the last decade and a half. Klein et al. (2007: 753), for example, acknowledge that ‘the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], its subsidiary bodies and Member Parties have largely focused on mitigation’, and Schneider et al. (2007: 797) concede that ‘the scientific literature on [adaptation] is less well developed than for mitigation, and the conclusions are more speculative in many cases’.

At one extreme, it is possible that some in the scientific and environmentalist communities may have subscribed, consciously or unconsciously, to a paradigm of salvation in which only mitigation strategies can save the world from climatic catastrophe. In Tol’s (2005: 572) view, ‘it was politically incorrect to speak about adaptation to climate change, because it presumably implies accepting defeat in the battle against evil emissions’. While Pielke et al. (2007: 597) agree, they also point out that ‘during early policy discussions on climate change in the 1980s, adaptation was understood to be an important option for society’.

A more liberal explanation of the comparative neglect of adaptation may be that the lack of scientific certainty about climate change made analysts cautious until the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report in 2001. In a 1995 IPCC synthesis report, Bolin et al. (1995: para 2.5), for example, state that ‘there are inadequate data to determine whether consistent global changes in climate variability or weather extremes have occurred over the 20th century’. Only with the drama of more recent extreme weather events such as protracted drought in Australia, Hurricane Katrina in the United States, severe floods in many parts of the world, the 2003 heat waves in Europe, as well as the publicity surrounding the 2006 Stern Review, has public attention focused on the possible effects of climate change.

A good deal of the emphasis in the scientific literature has been the identification of generic risks and vulnerabilities. The impacts of climate change are often assessed in the technical literature in terms of criteria (Schneider et al. 2007: 785) such as the magnitude of an effect (for example, the number of people or the area affected) or its timing (soon, or in the distant future), or persistence and reversibility (for example, the loss of major ice sheets or the shutdown of the meridional overturning circulation). Further, ‘the literature on adaptation costs and benefits remains quite limited and fragmented in terms of sectoral and regional coverage. ... Much of the literature ... is focused on sea-level rise ... and agriculture’ (Adger et al. 2007: 724–5).

A medley of lists and categories of various ‘vulnerabilities’ has developed to indicate areas of greatest priority in addressing adaptation to climate change. For example, Schneider et al. (2007: 787–9) list categories that include often-overlapping areas such as food supply, aggregate market impacts and distribution, health, water resources, infrastructure, fire, marine ecosystems and biodiversity, and so on. But such lists in themselves provide little or no guidance on what should be done, or when, or by how much, by way of adaptation.

The academic, policy-related literature ranges across perspectives as diverse as Orlove’s (2005) anthropological examination of the collapse of the classic Mayan civilisation and the abandonment of Viking settlements in Greenland, England’s (2007) exploration of legal liability aspects, Berkhout’s (2006) pessimism about the willingness of commercial organisations to experiment in adaptation techniques, warnings by McMichael (2004) and Woodruff et al. (2006) about the spread of malaria and dengue fever, reports about the melting of roadways and buckling of railway lines by DuVair et al. (2002), and the spectre of an invasion of Australia’s shores by environmental refugees from the Pacific Basin raised by Furnass (2007), based on work by Dupont and Pearman (2006). Again, however, there is no clear indication of what exactly should be done, or when, or by how much.

Both the scientific and the policy-oriented literature suffer from the problem of being based on the output of climate-change models. They are therefore able to provide little more than general indications of potential climate risks because the results from climate-change models are average (that is, trend) values, whereas adaptation necessarily needs to address extreme weather events (the outlying probabilistic points around the trend line). More importantly, climate models are based on simulations of possible scenarios of future atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. And there is enormous uncertainty about which scenario is the most likely, or even whether governments will reach and enforce a clear international agreement on mitigation levels that might help determine a likely scenario.

The upshot of this situation, unfortunately, is that the information currently available to governments and the public offers very little certainty about the specific effects of any climate change, and hence cannot provide useful guidance regarding the extent or timing of policy responses.

[3] The allusion is to eponymous productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta where the Mikado produces a ‘little list’ of people who irritate him. The list is, in fact, quite lengthy, follows no underlying principle, and varies from production to production to ensure ‘relevance’.