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Adapt Or Die - Or Thrive?: The Urgency of Climate Adaptation Action

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Individuals, businesses and communities do not have to die in climate change driven natural disasters. They can adapt.

In the aftermath of the 2001 September 11th attacks, the question asked most often of the Nation’s public safety community was: What should be the top priority – focusing on the terrorism risk or on the risk from natural disasters?

The Federal government chose to focus on the terror risk, and for the next three years all disaster preparedness activities conducted by and, more importantly, funded by the Federal government focused exclusively on the terrorism risk to the exclusion of the risk of natural disasters.

Predictably, in 2005 a major natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) made it very clear that major natural disasters could not be ignored and that the Nation’s public safety community must be focused equally on homeland security and disaster management.

For years, a similar question was debated in the climate change community – should the focus be exclusively on mitigation or adaptation? Mitigating the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are changing our climate was the overwhelming choice.

By the early 2000s, the climate change scientific community finally came to the conclusion that adaptation and mitigation were equally critical to dealing with our changing climate.

The reality is that it will take multiple generations for mitigation efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the point that we have a clean climate.

In the interim, it will be necessary to identify and implement adaptation and risk reduction actions that will reduce the impacts of more frequent and more severe natural disasters driven by climate change.

This past year has provided a preview of the types of major disaster events we can expect in the future. According to NOAA, there have been 16 Billion dollar disasters across the country. In 2020, we saw a hurricane season with a record number of named storms and a wildfire season with no end in sight.

These events have all been exacerbated by the changing climate and reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be a top priority of the Biden administration and governments around the world. Promoting and funding adaptation actions must also be a top priority for these groups.

Almost every community in the US has a hazard mitigation plan that has identified a set of structural (levees, hardening critical infrastructure) and non-structural (property buyouts, wetland restoration, forest management, resettlement) risk reduction actions designed to reduce the impacts of future natural disasters.

Many of these communities also have developed climate change adaptation plans that identify actions each community can take to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Taken together, risk reduction and climate change adaptation actions can protect lives, jobs, economies, critical infrastructure, our natural resources, small businesses, and our way of life.

What is needed is funding and the political capital that elected officials at the State and local levels need to implement these actions.

More importantly, what is needed is leadership from President-Elect Biden, Congress, State and local elected officials, and the business community to generate the public and funding support to build resilient communities.

Since February of this year, we as a country have failed to adapt to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in over 16 Million cases and 300,000 deaths and untold suffering across our country.

If we do not set a national agenda that supports implementing adaptation actions at the community level, the toll that the changing climate will take on our people, our institutions, and our economy will make the pandemic look like a walk in the park.

About the Author

George Haddow is a Strategic Advisor for Adaptation Ledger, specializing in disaster recovery, hazard mitigation, FEMA programs, and helping organizations and communities attract funding for adaptation investment and action. Read more about George and his work here.

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