Viewpoint: Changing climate demands that we adapt

By Jacob Miller, ND-GAIN Summer 2016 Intern

This post originally appeared the South Bend Tribune Opinions

The dramatic floods in West Virginia and the recent wildfires in California provide a reminder that climate change can bring sudden and catastrophic hardships to communities. To some degree, the extent of the hardships imposed is a result of the level of preparedness of a community to its climate vulnerability. We refer to this as adaption.

Climate change influences areas of the globe differently, and of those communities affected similarly, the most prepared suffer the least. This applies to all communities, including ours here in northern Indiana. Through adaptation, we can begin to proactively minimize the effects of climate change, which is an unyielding reality regardless of our mitigation efforts. We may have already reached a tipping point for which effects of the warming temperatures will be experienced, regardless of how much we reduce future carbon emissions. As a result, we must prepare to adapt to these changes.

Adaptation strategies can be straightforward. A perfect example of adaptation comes from the Big Picture Science podcast “Surviving the Anthropocene,” which discusses a story of a Tibet man who rerouted the glacial runoff in the Himalayas to move through the shadows of the mountains thus preventing it from evaporating. This act gave his village prolonged access to water.

Simple forms of adaptation can also be seen within the U.S. as well. Take for example the threat from a heat wave, which disproportionately affects elderly and lower income people. Through the installation of cooling stations, we could adapt to this probable event to help reduce loss from such a climate event.

The most climate-affected areas of the northern Indiana community are physical infrastructure and human well-being. Due to the rate of change in precipitation, temperature and storms we can expect the physical aspects of our community to wear down more quickly. This will be a challenge that worsens as the effects of climate continue to unfold. Heat, floods and droughts all can take lives. California and West Virginia serve as examples. Human well-being may also be in danger with respect to social equity. Nature is nondiscriminatory as to whom it harms. It doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, white or black, Christian or Jew. Physics determines where and when extreme weather will strike. But how we distribute resources to respond to these climate pressures can result in disproportionate harm.

As these climate disasters occur to our east and west, we can also expect northern Indiana to experience changes in climate. Positioned next to Lake Michigan, we are highly dependent on the climate patterns of lake-effect precipitation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Midwest is expected to see intense rainfall in the spring and early summer, followed by dry summers. We are also expected to experience a rise in temperature, leading to intense storms and a reduction in regional agricultural yields. These changes threaten the way of life for hundreds of thousands of people in our area.

Major uncertainty surrounds the future of climate in the Midwest, and could result in major costs. A climate disaster in the northern Indiana area is possible; therefore we must be prepared.

This leaves us two choices. Firstly, we can begin to anticipate changes and adapt now at a lower cost. Or, secondly, we can wait and be forced to respond once a disaster event occurs.

If a climate event of this kind does strike, we will be struck with a significant cost to our community. In this sense, we can view investment in adaptation as a preventive measure to minimize significant consequences later. The likelihood of the northern Indiana area experiencing a climate-induced disaster is constantly increasing. Thus, adaptation allows us a way to avoid a major cost later for a lesser cost now. Through the development of adaptive measures we can be prepared in the event our community is unearthed by climate. Adaptation is the key to community survival through these climatic changes.

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative is a source for additional information on this issue, providing an index of preparedness and adaptation on a global scale.