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When an adaptation effort no longer suffices: More, better, and transformational adaptation; Preparing now for future uncertainty

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No adaptation approach lasts forever in the face of increasing stresses posed by a changing climate. Think of each such effort’s having a ‘use-by’ date. How then to help strengthen future resilience?

By Tyler Felgenhauer July 5 2017 Yale Climate Connections  see full article here

Climate adaptation responses are not all created equal … and they have varying design lives.

The term “adaptation” encompasses strategies designed to respond to climate change damages specific to individual economic sectors, for example agriculture, infrastructure, and energy. Along with responding within various sectors, they are designed also to address specific types of climate impacts faced – for instance sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and heat waves.

An adaptation limit can be defined simply as “the point at which the level of climate damages has surpassed the capacity of the current adaptation approach, and net adaptation – adaptation benefits minus damage costs – has dropped to zero.”*

The adaptation limit threshold is reached when climate damages exceed the existing adaptation response. At that point, existing adaptation responses may still provide benefits but continuing impacts will exceed the adaptive capacity…..On the environmental side are links between the changing climate and the degree to which local ecological systems are resilient to those changes….

Needed: More, better, and transformational adaptation

For policymakers concerned with future adaptation investment decisions, the response to failing adaptation must involve regular investments so long as benefits – in the form of avoided damages – exceed costs. Depending on the sector, a combination of more, better, or transformational adaptation might prevent a system from passing its adaptation limits threshold.

More adaptation…doing more of the same… [per] an earlier report: To address sea-level rise, additional beach renourishment could replace sand that had washed away; the height of seawalls could be increased to prevent overtopping; or levees and other coastal engineering could be extended. For agriculture, additional irrigation water could be supplied, if available. And homes could be retrofitted with more insulation and/or more powerful air conditioners.

Better Adaptation… involves a quality approach using new and innovative methods or technologies independent of previous efforts…a farmer may have a set of available adaptation options and technologies in order of rising costs – e.g., changing planting and harvesting times, intensifying irrigation, switching to new heat- or drought-resistant seed varieties, or changing crops altogether. Such movement up an “adaptation response ladder” assumes the availability of alternative and new adaptation approaches that can substitute for earlier ones that have reached their limit.

Transformational adaptation …[when] neither “more” nor “better” is sufficient…changes the structure of the damage-response system itself, in turn changing the impact of damages and the pathway of adaptation failure. In changing the system’s behavior rather than the adaption efforts, successful transformational adaptation changes the calculus of all future adaptation decisions…Transformational adaptation could be initiated in anticipation of expected adaptation failures, but in practice it may be done as a last resort, when all other adaptation options have been exhausted. On this point, one team of researchers finds that “The key tension appears to be whether actors choose to transform or have transformation forced upon them.”

…Some examples of transformational adaptation fall under the “retreat or abandon” rubric, such as rolling easements for sea-level rise, the creation of tourist islands on the North Carolina Outer Banks with the demise of its road system, or migration away from hazardous areas. For agriculture, transformational adaptation could mean land abandonment and moving farms to new areas, though the transition and absolute costs of such a move would likely be higher than leaving farming altogether….

Preparing now for an uncertain future: As the effects of climate change grow increasingly severe, how can we achieve “sustainable adaptation”? Three themes can guide our thinking:

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