Walking the talk in climate change

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“It is not about the Science, it is not about mitigation, it is not about projections… it´s about all of that, on top of the current adaptation gap”.

This is what I was thinking as I left the NAS/NASA workshop Walking the talk: Climate Science in Service to Resilient Federal Properties.

This workshop, incidentally, was canceled few hours short of its original date, October 31st, due to Sandy. On the second attempt, it was again almost cancelled, due to exceptional wind and rain conditions in DC. That pretty much summarizes my take-away from the meeting.

NASA, as a forerunner, shared their progress securing their federal facilities against the changing climate. They talked about the process from the science of data and models, to the implementation of adaptation measures such as physical storm surge barriers at their coastal rocket facilities.

I found of special relevance the importance they gave to avoid a purely science driven approach. It´s just not only about the science pushing data to decision makers. Indeed, NASA partnered with architects, contractors, journalists and other stakeholders with the goal of being responsive to all actors involved on this process.

Still, the disconnect exists. Even on a room filled with federal employees whose boss in 2009 established a presidential Climate change Adaptation Task Force (along with the mandate to “manage the effects of climate change in short and long term”), as well as concrete 2011 Implementing Instructions for Federal Agency Climate Change Adaptation Planning. One of the first question from another federal employee was about the uncertainty of climate science. To him, inaction was wiser until we know to what we should adapt to. And so we debated and polarized even more the issue.

Where is this disconnect coming from? Part of this, I believe, is that climate change is linked to mitigation and future consequences. The future overshadows the present. For example, sea level rise is present on every discussion on climate change, while storm surges are often not so. Yet these already have costly consequences. Perhaps we´ll see this loop closing as people connect with the unfortunate, reality of increasing extreme events like storm surges, droughts, blizzards… Here at home, not overseas on the TV. As we connect with our current climate vulnerability: There is already an adaptation gap that needs to be addressed. Building resiliency, protecting lives, saving ecosystems, safeguarding livelihoods, protecting investments and infrastructures, identifying new opportunities and challenges. This, in turn, will unleash an inclusive role of all stakeholders, including the underplayed private sector.

Of course, on top of this current vulnerability, challenges will increase, specially for the most vulnerable.

Perhaps americans, as constituency, will connect with the climate and thus push it up on the political agenda. Perhaps then political leadership will catalyze. For that, a second term president certainly helps.

Treating climate change as a mitigation issue with incremental impacts in the future is ill-informed. Manhattan probably has the greenest least polluting modern buildings, and yet it will continue to flood until we take action on building resilience to climate.

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