Adaptation to climate change is a multilevel issue

We live in a changing world. The impacts of climate change will change landscapes and societies – to which degree is up to mankind. Given the disappointing wrangling over a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol so-far, there is little reason for optimism that the 2°C goal will be met. The conclusion is that we should calculate with a 2°C warming and be prepared to exceed it.

Enter adaptation to climate change.

While we have so far concentrated on mitigating climate change through reducing emissions, concerns over the impacts and our ability to deal with them have arisen. Discussions on how to adapt to climate change have been opened up in the scientific community, not without being noticed by policy makers. In April 2009 the European Commission published a policy paper, known as the White Paper "Adapting to climate change: Towards a European framework for action". It presents the framework for adaptation measures and policies to reduce the EU's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and asks member states to take action. There is at the moment a big debate about national adaptation strategies to climate change. The EU will go on the offensive and present the EU adaptation strategy in April 2013. If this comes with a directive that will make it mandatory for national states to have national adaptation strategies is still a well-kept secret. In any case, something must happen. But should it happen on national level? Well, yes but definitively not only.

Arguments why the national level should be active…

Climate adaptation is a cross-cutting task which concerns competences of different sectors ranging from agriculture, over coastal protection to finances and legal questions. An overarching frame on national level can ensure that climate adaptation is mainstreamed into all relevant policy sectors.

Dealing with climate change on national level sends a signal that the issue is acknowledged by the national authorities. The national level can bundle resources and create synergies, by providing information, financial instruments, planning instruments, setting the legal frame, but also by expanding the knowledge base, e.g. by commissioning scientific studies.

…but why it is not enough.

We adapt to climate change to prevent damage – either for our society, our health, our economy, or our property. The impacts of climate change will also matter at local level, be it that we have to protect us against floods, adapt our drainage system, think about emergency plans for heat waves or that local farmers can grow different kind of plants. Adapting to such new circumstances means taking concrete decisions on the local level.

Talking about adaptation to climate change on the local level increases awareness as people can relate to their immediate environment much better. It can trigger a sense of responsibility, if the own property or local business might be affected in the long run.

Dealing with climate adaptation is probably uncomfortable for local decision makers. It is difficult to talk about something when we do not know what we actually talk about. Even if we accept that the climate is changing and even if the models tell us that we will have more heat waves, possibly stronger winter storms, and more frequent heavy rain events, we still don’t know when it will hit a particular location exactly and how often. Consequently, any decision about investments or financing is difficult to make. Will it pay off, and if so, when? It is often recommended to resort to no-regret measures that do pay-off even if the impacts of climate change are not as severe as expected, e.g. exploring new economic possibilities that take conditions under a changed climate into account. But even if no-regret measures are beneficial already under current conditions, they are likely to cost money. In times of financial crises and chronically underfinanced municipal households it will be difficult to justify such spending, even though it might be the cheaper alternative in the long run.

This is where the national level and national policies can come into play. Through a national strategy and an action plan, responsibilities and tasks can be clearly attributed to the local level. Funding schemes can reward active municipalities and allow financing measures according to priorities or according to pay-off, e.g. by financing primarily no-regret measures.

So, something must happen: on EU, national and local level. Only if these regulative levels  and the activities of different actors mesh, they reinforce each other and increase our ability to deal with the impacts of climate change.


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