Climate change’s effects are already being felt today, so adapting will be necessary—and it doesn't have to hurt. Explore how building resilience can have a silver lining.
How Communities Can Adapt to Climate Change
Published: June 29, 2020
Narrator: Climate change may be a global issue, but how it affects us depends on where we live. If you’re in Chicago and experience intense summer heat, you’re not going to be so concerned with, say, rising sea levels. On the other hand, if you’re in Miami, rising seas are a real threat.
One way to think about adaptation is to boil it down to a location's exposure and vulnerability.
Onscreen: Adapting to Climate Change
Narrator: Think of exposure as the presence of humans and their communities. If a hurricane somewhere in the Atlantic makes landfall in an unpopulated area, there is no exposure. If it’s sparsely populated, there’s low exposure. On the other hand, if that same hurricane makes landfall somewhere densely populated—say, Houston a lot of people would be in harm's way. So, Houston has high exposure.
Ok, now let’s consider vulnerability, which comes down to how prepared a city is for disaster. Keeping with the hurricane example, does Houston have accurate flood maps? A good drainage system? Is it hilly or flat, which relates to how much flooding a city experiences? The better equipped a place is, the less vulnerable it is—even if it has a lot of exposure. And preparation varies city by city, so things could be completely different for two cities that are only a few hundred miles apart.
It’s complicated, which is why climate scientists Radley Horton and Katharine Hayhoe are partnering with cities to help them develop adaptation strategies.
Radley Horton: I work with the city to help them understand how climate risks are going to change. It's a long term partnership with decision makers. Asking them things like how have extreme weather events in the past impacted you?
Katharine Hayhoe: A heat wave, a drought, a flood, a hurricane, a storm, or more, what vulnerabilities are they concerned about?
Horton: What are the events that keep you up at night? The sort of almost-disasters.
Hayhoe: And then, I as the climate scientist look at how these different events are changing. We pair these things together with the priorities people have and that helps identify the most sensible actions to build resilience. It might be social resilience. It might be economic resilience. It might be physical resilience, in terms of building places for the water to go when it floods.
Horton: Sometimes what is maybe most central to vulnerability has to do with the people themselves. Do they have the economic resources and access to information to protect themselves and to make decisions?
Narrator: Climate change takes the environmental challenges a community is already exposed to and makes them worse. It exacerbates the extremes—meaning it will make disasters more disastrous or more frequent.
So as more and more people are exposed to a growing list of climate disasters, can we decrease our vulnerability? Scientists like Hayhoe think that building resilience to the challenges we already face today is how we adapt to a changing climate.
Hayhoe: Building climate resilience can actually improve the quality of our lives. It decreases our vulnerability. It improves our wellbeing and our safety. It can improve our air quality and our water quality, reduce our pollution levels, improve our health. There are all kinds of smart, sensible ways that adaptation can help us today as well as in the future.
Narrator: Building resilience now can help us live with some of the consequences of a changing climate. But, if we need to adapt to climate change’s worst-case scenario, it will require an enormous shift in the world order. And we can’t fully predict what all the consequences will be, nor how they’ll affect us.
This is why, while adaptation is a crucial strategy for dealing with climate change, it can’t be the only one.
Follow us on social to watch our episodes that explore other climate change solutions.
Narrated by: Caitlin Saks
Produced by: Ana Aceves
Research & Production: Haley Apicella, Sukee Bennett, Ari Daniel, Robin Kazmier, Christina Monnen, and Caitlin Saks
Science Advisor: Scott Denning
Footage: Storyblocks, Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center
Animation: Mitch Butler
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