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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July/August 2008

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Coping with Climate Change: A National Summit

This past year, focus on climate change finally shifted from whether the climate is indeed changing to what we can do about it. The release of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, the awarding of the Nobel Prize for both climate science and climate communication efforts, and the adoption of the Bali Road Map at the 13th Conference of Parties meeting in Indonesia underscored the recognition that humans are changing the climate rapidly and that the world must act collectively to dampen the unsustainable trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

For too long, talking about adapting to or coping with climate change was deemed impolitic because it was taken to mean that no serious mitigation or emissions reductions were being contemplated. The word “adaptation” was treated as synonymous with society muddling through to deal with whatever impacts climate change posed, while the trajectory of soaring energy use and greenhouse gas production could continue unabated. Discussions in the 1990s suggested we could choose between mitigating climate change or adapting to it. Now, we know we need to do both. The accumulation of scientific evidence in the last few years makes it abundantly clear that changes in the climate are under way, many regions have already felt their impact, and humanity faces more of both in the future. Thus, a sensible strategy to minimize the damages from anthropogenic climate change must work in parallel to mitigate the pace and ultimate magnitude of the changes that occur and adapt to the changes that cannot be avoided.

The study of adaptation is nascent compared to the many analyses of costs and technologies to reduce emissions. To begin a national conversation on adaptation, the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment convened a summit, “Coping with Climate Change,” 8–10 May 2007. Two hundred participants representing industry, academia, environmental groups, and policymakers from city, state, regional, national, and international levels met and discussed the problems climate change would pose. As well, we discussed options to enhance the resilience and robustness of our social and ecological systems to withstand the current and future changes.

The summit focused on four sectors in the United States that have received too little attention, including energy and water quality (discussed below), and took an innovative scenarios approach to exploring interdisciplinary ways to enhance society’s ability to cope with a changing climate. Hypothetical but plausible impact scenarios illustrated how communities might manage climate change as well as other environmental stresses occurring simultaneously in ways that would be robust and promote resilience. Discussions helped to analyze what is at risk, identify adaptation options, and characterize urgently needed research to produce information to guide wise policymaking. This brief conference report highlights some of the many insights developed over the three days.

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