Review of Adaptive Governance and Climate Change

by Ronald D. Brunner and Amanda H. Lynch

(American Meteorological Society, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, $35.00 paperback, 424 pages, 2010)

A Science Shelf Guest Review by Madhav Khandekar

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Note from website owner:
I added this review after being contacted by Dr. Khandakhar regarding one of my blog postings. We disagree on some aspects of the climate change debate, but I thought his point of view about the proper political policy was worth discussing. Note that he does not disagree with the major scientific conclusions of the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Rather, he takes issue on the political direction that has resulted from that report, which focuses primarly on mitigation and neglects adaptation (Plan B).

(Review originally published in CMOS Bulletin, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Vol.38, No.3, June 2010, p.108)

This is one of the latest books on the most intensely debated scientific issue of our time, climate change. The book came out soon after the well-publicized Copenhagen meeting in December 2009, organized by the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The Copenhagen meeting ended without any substantive agreement on reducing the greenhouse gases (GHGs) which have been identified by the IPCC and its adherents as responsible for recent warming of the earth's surface and subsequent climate change.

The book provides an alternative to the IPCC's approach (on climate change) by suggesting an adaptation strategy, something that is now discussed by many scientists and policymakers. The first two chapters of the book provide a background on the UNFCCC and the IPCC and the ultimate objective to get an international agreement on GHG reduction. The emergence of adaptive governance in recent years at local and regional levels is described as an outgrowth of UNFCCC's unsuccessful attempts to come to terms with developed vs developing nations on GHG targets. The adaptive governance approach is characterized as a 'bottom up' approach to climate change rather than the 'top down' approach taken by UNFCCC and its ongoing process of negotiating world-wide GHG targets.

This approach is further exemplified in chapter three using a case study for Barrow Alaska (located west of the Beaufort Sea at lat ~71N), a small community of a few thousand permanent residents. The climate change impact in Barrow and the North Slope is identified primarily through an intense storm of October 1963 and several other subsequent storms. This chapter, the longest in the book, discusses how the local and regional government initiatives helped develop adaptation strategies to minimize extreme weather impacts. The next chapter of the book provides a framework for developing adaptive governance as a decentralized approach to climate change with community-based initiatives.

The last chapter (five) provides a rationale for developing this theme and further summarizes alternative approaches like low carbon technology (e.g., solar electric power plants, wind turbines), geo-engineering (e.g., albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulpher injection) and related initiatives developed in recent years. The last few pages of the chapter are devoted to latest developments on emission targets, failure at Poznan (Poland) meeting in December 2008 on securing any agreement, impact of global economic melt-down and slow recovery, changes in political landscape in the US and subsequent changes in the US Climate Change Action Plans, leading up to the Copenhagen meeting. The book does not discuss the outcome of the Copenhagen meeting nor the failure of negotiations at the meeting due to refusal by developing nations (primarily Brazil, China and India) to go along with any GHG reduction targets being imposed by the western nations.

The book presents a refreshing look at the climate change issue and how to cope with future climate change impacts. This is a significant departure from the IPCC's mitigation approach, which has been stymied so far, due to lack of political will and many other socioeconomic parameters. The concept of a simple adaptation strategy is now gaining traction and this book provides a useful background on how this can become more effective and more acceptable in future. It is instructive to note a couple of commentaries on the book:

Besides the example of climate change at Barrow Alaska, the book also provides examples of other locations and regions where climate change impacts are being tackled at local levels. In the Pacific Islands, the PEAC (Pacific ENSO Application Center) informed local decision-makers about impending drought from the intense 1997-98 El Nio and initiated suitable action on minimizing the drought impacts. In Melbourne Australia, amid continuing drought, city officials and other professionals initiated action to make major amendments to local water policies. In Nepal, melted ice water from several glaciers caused significant accumulation of water in a nearby lake. The Government of Nepal, with the support of international donors, initiated a project in 1998 to lower the lake level by drainage, so as to prevent it from bursting and creating catastrophic loss of water and damage to property.

These and other examples in the book are primarily geared towards documenting 'global warming' impacts as identified by the IPCC. The reality of recent climate change is however, far more complex and does not conform to IPCC projections. In the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, the mean temperature has been declining for the past 25 years or more and the last ten years have witnessed heavier winter snow accumulation in many locales there. In the conterminous US, the sea-board States in southeastern US as well as some of the Midwestern States have witnessed heavier winter snow accumulation in recent years. The past winter saw unusually heavy snow accumulation in Washington, the US Capital, which was paralyzed for almost a week in January 2010, with so many roads clogged with snow! There are many other examples in other regions of the earth which show glaring disparity between IPCC projections and climate reality of the last ten years or more. A discussion on the climate change reality and appropriate adaptive initiatives tailored to specific climate change impacts would have been a useful addition to the book.

Notwithstanding the above minor exclusion, the book is a welcome addition to the plethora of books and documents on environment and climate change that are available at present. This book should be on a "must read" list of decision-makers at various levels of government in Canada. Further, the book could provide a valuable guideline at future national and international meetings on climate change and emission targets. The book's main message that it is time to take a closer look at adaptation strategy (Plan B) should now become the new mantra for coping. with future climate change.

Madhav Khandekar is a former Research Scientist from Environment Canada and was an Expert Reviewer for the IPCC 2007 Climate Change documents. Khandekar has been in the weather & climate sciences for over 52 years and he continues his research interest at present on climate change issues and impacts on interannual variability of Indian/Asian Monsoons.