Training & Education

Are You Promoting Climate Adaption Measures? (It’s Time to Start)

While the rest of the world has been thinking about the warming climate for some time, we in the U.S. are catching up on the issue.

Climate Change Summit
At the Maryland Climate Change Summit last July, Gov. Martin O’Malley released the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan. Flickr CC/Jay Baker

While the rest of the world has been thinking about the warming climate for some time, we in the U.S. are catching up on what we need to do about the issue.

First, it would be good to define some terminology. In some political circles and geographical areas, the terms “climate change” and “global warming” are not well received. These may be referred to as voodoo science using computer models to contort what is happening in nature. One way to avoid getting sucked into the debate about the causes of climate change is to talk about the warming climate using the term “climate variability.” Many oppose the notion of the changing climate being attributable to human causes. But no matter what the cause, we need to deal with the consequences of a warming climate. 

In climate change terms, the word “mitigation” is about controlling carbon emissions. Cap and trade of pollution emissions is one of the tools some countries are looking at for that purpose. If you’re taking steps to deal with the changing climate, the term used is “climate adaptation.” For purists who are seeking to reverse global warming, the thought of focusing on climate adaptation is like surrendering to the inevitable. They fear that a move to climate adaptation will negate all the efforts at climate mitigation by reducing carbon emissions. As you can see, the topic can be a minefield of opinions and issues.

Warmer air temperatures are projected to bring a host of natural disasters, starting with sea rise. Even the conservative estimates for the changing ocean levels will cause some significant issues around the world. While “normal” weather conditions might make things bearable for now, combining sea rise with other weather phenomenon, like hurricanes, will make those types of events much more damaging. Take Superstorm Sandy, for instance. It came ashore at high tide, making the storm surge much more destructive. Sea rise for our coastal cities may be extremely damaging, especially as people and population densities continue to increase in coastal areas.

Severe weather is predicted to become more frequent and destructive. Warmer air holds more moisture, which means that record-breaking rainfall and snowstorms will become predictive events.  

Not all hazards will be directly attributable to climate variability. While you might not think of the U.S. as being an Arctic nation, Alaska borders on the Arctic. The decrease in the ice pack will allow for a true Northwest Passage, first in the summer and then eventually year-round. 

This indirect impact will bring with it the potential for human-caused events like maritime accidents. With vast oil reserves in that part of the world, the pressure to explore and tap those resources to feed our need for petroleum products of all types will increase. Oil spills of one type or another are sure to follow.

Combine this with old infrastructure and the stresses and strains that nature puts on these systems, and there will likely be significant failures in these infrastructures. They may have functioned well for 50 to 60 years, but are aging and facing more extreme conditions. Watch for an increasing number of levees and dams to become unstable and experience failures. 

As emergency managers, we need to be working to promote climate adaptation measures that protect our communities, and failing that we will revert to consequence management.

Eric Holdeman  |  Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.

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