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Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Adaptation Myth

Robert Repetto of Yale University has authored a proactive new report that argues that adaptation to the "climate crisis" is a myth. In building his argument, he juxtaposes the standard assumptions about high adaptive capacity in the developed world with some of the natural hazard management failures that have occurred despite such capacity: hurricanes, flood management, water resources management. His conclusion: the state of adaptation planning and implementation is underwhelming, particularly given that climate change has been on the radar for decades. Furthermore, the generally optimistic assumptions about the adaptive capacity of developed nations are overly optimistic.

On one hand, this argument is self-evident. There are copious examples of poor environmental risk management to draw from, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. Meanwhile there are few quality examples where long-term strategic actions have been implemented in anticipation of future climate change. On the other hand, we know that adaptation is, in fact, occurring - it always has been (e.g., this report from the OECD or this one from the Heinz Center). Human beings are nothing if not adaptive, and in some cases, that adaptation can occur very quickly (although the standard paradigm would seem to be one of reactive adaptation after the fact). An interesting question, therefore, is how to reconcile these seemingly opposing perspectives, both of which appear to be valid.

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