News from the Columbia Climate School

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Adapting Is the Key

By Clare Oh

This is the third of a continuing series of essays and interviews from Earth Institute scientists on the prospects for a global climate-change treaty. Check with us daily for news and perspectives, and to make comments, as events unfold throughout the Copenhagen meetings.

Stephen Zebiak, director general of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), is in the business of helping societies adapt to changing climate: adjusting farming methods and crops, tackling climate-sensitive diseases such as malaria, and protecting low-lying areas from sea-level rise. Clare Oh of the Columbia University Record talked with Zebiak:

Farmers in Central Kalimantan use fire to clear land for agriculture. Image credit: Francesco Fiondella / IRI
Farmers in Central Kalimantan use fire to clear land for agriculture. Image credit: Francesco Fiondella / IRI

So far, he says, the focus has been on dramatic and difficult ways to mitigate climate change—sequestering carbon emissions, setting up a carbon cap-and-trade system—the details of which leaders cannot seem to agree upon. But there is one area that most countries already agree on: adaptation. “Nobody is saying [that] we don’t need to have more effective means to cope with the effects of climate. In fact, an agreement on adaptation is the one thing that could come out of Copenhagen.”

Some momentum for including adaptation in a climate agreement was gained at the 2008 climate summit in Bali, when an international fund was set up to support adaptation efforts in developing countries. However, only a small portion of the $1 billion goal has so far been committed, and so far, few organizations are aiding poor countries most in need. It’s a “very lonely space,” acknowledges Zebiak.

It is also not a simple fix; for one, it often involves painstaking negotiations among competing interests. In Manila, the Philippine capital, the municipal reservoir is shared by more than 10 million people, says Zebiak, including not only the city dwellers, but farmers outside the city. Since 2003, IRI has worked with the Philippines’ National Water Resources Board, the city’s water-supply agency, the irrigation group that represents farmers, and the national power and meteorological agencies to use climate data to forecast reservoir inflows. That is a complex process, but it has already helped the city conserve water during dry periods and generate hydropower in times of plenty.

“We’re connecting what we know scientifically to practical actions on the ground that allow people to better manage risks in vulnerable sectors,” said Zebiak.

Similar IRI projects include an early warning system that relies on climate information to prevent damaging peat fires in Indonesia; partnering with Oxfam America in rural Ethiopia to provide crop insurance to farmers; and working with a Google-funded initiative to avert infectious disease outbreaks in East Africa by using forecasts of rainfall and other environmental information.

Zebiak says that climate adaptation can be relatively inexpensive, and even small successes could quickly produce big gains. “Think about the amount that is being spent on remote sensing and satellites, on developing better models to predict climate forecasts,” he says. “But when we go to a health agency in west Africa, for example, we find that folks who are faced with a malaria epidemic don’t even have a sense of how seasonal changes in climate affect the disease.”

“It will be welcome news” if leaders can at least agree on a plan that encourages both rich and poor countries to adapt to climate, he says.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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