WunderBlog Archive » Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Category 6 has moved! See the latest from Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson here.

Identifying (More) Barriers in Responding to Climate Change

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:53 AM GMT on March 07, 2013

Identifying (More) Barriers in Responding to Climate Change

I followed and was distracted by the wet, warm storm on the edge in Washington, D.C. (Washington Post). Very much the type of storm from the last blog.

I have been at a meeting where we talked about what it takes to advance and accelerate our use of climate knowledge at regional and local scales. The focus of this meeting was on adaptation planning, meaning planning how we will adapt to a warming world.

Though there remains conversation about how to get more people involved in using the knowledge of climate change in planning, for example, in urban planning or coastal planning, my experience is that there are a lot of people and organizations already working on these problems. There are a number of special organizations that have been set up as “boundary organizations.” These organizations are interfaces, or boundaries, between the scientific community and those who are trying to evaluate what climate change really means to their work. For example, imagine you are a water manager for a city that depends on surface reservoirs. You are looking at population growth, competition with agriculture and climate change. How do you mix the information from climate change into plans for new dams? How does climate change affect the policy that you negotiate with other cities and agricultural water companies? Boundary organizations strive to position the climate knowledge in the context of these decisions.

Prominent examples of boundary organizations in the United States are the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments centers that are managed by the NOAA’s Climate Program Office. The types of problems addressed by these centers range from water management by cities, to protection of cities from rising sea level, to agricultural productivity. The U.S. Department of the Interior has a set of Climate Science Centers, which are boundary organizations focused on the interface with the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives. The missions of the Climate Science Centers are focused on ecosystems.

Boundary organizations exist because challenges always arise when knowledge and priorities from different areas of expertise and interests are brought together in decision making. The challenges seem especially large when knowledge comes from one or more fields of science. The presence of scientific knowledge in the decision making increases the challenge because there is a common perception that science generates quantitative, definitive facts. Though a basic element of scientific practice is to measure and, therefore, to quantify things, the scientific method does not generate facts. The scientific method generates knowledge and a description of the uncertainty of that knowledge. This combination of a number suggesting quantitative knowledge and a sometimes-large amount of uncertainty is counterintuitive and confusing.

Often when scientists talk about barriers to the use of climate information in planning, they talk about better defining, quantifying and describing uncertainty. Other issues that scientists talk about are data formats, standard grids on which to present data and, rather than just presenting the temperature, the need to present heat indices that are relevant to people, cows or trees. There is no doubt that these are important issues. They represent barriers. They are, in fact, the easy issues.

Let’s go back to that city water manager of a couple of paragraphs ago. Planning for city water looks out several decades. Assume that the population outlook suggests the need for a new reservoir. A new reservoir requires budget, public buy-in, permitting and environmental assessment. In the easiest case, it can take many years to put all of these issues together. Suppose that the city is already five years into the process, and the climate change enters into the conversation. This, effectively, requires starting over, getting new permits – adding many more years. Alternatively, we can leave climate change out of the planning and stay on schedule. In this case, the permitting process can be viewed as a barrier to use of climate-change knowledge. A climate risk is incurred.

Building and engineering standards provide another barrier. With the possible exception of hurricane-vulnerable communities on the coast, there has not been a wholesale change in engineering standards to accommodate climate change. What do we do about changes in the temperature, intense rain and high winds? For example, how does the temperature change the behavior of road pavement? What is the new standard? We are building now to today’s standards for infrastructure that we expect to last 50 years. Existing standards anchored in historical weather variability, the past climate, are barriers to the use of climate-change knowledge.

The final barrier I mention is language. We still struggle with “climate” and “climate-change.” These are words that remain politically and emotionally charged. It used to be that we could not talk about “adaptation” because adaptation was an implicit acknowledgement to the reality of climate change. We seek other words – “vulnerability,” “risk” and “preparedness.” It is possible to talk about vulnerability with decision makers, because people are well aware of what an extreme storm can do to their city. “Resilience” is another word that is accepted, meaning building more resilient structures and communities to avoid risk. These words “vulnerability” and “resilience” improve engagement, and in the short term they help reduce barriers. However, in the long term, changes in vulnerability and what constitutes increased resilience require us to talk about how the climate will change.

All of these barriers are intertwined. Scientific information will contribute to development of new standards. These standards will inform permitting. And the ability to get these items on the agenda for development of new standards and permitting faces a language barrier. This is years of work. In my recent blog on whether we should just adapt, I advocated that we needed to start talking through real scenarios, rather than talking about abstract warnings of increased heat, droughts and floods. One reason to talk through these scenarios is the need to identify these barriers early in process. If we identify them early, we can work on the reduction of several barriers at the same time, rather than one after another. It’s just good management.

Climate Impacts and Risks Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.