Good COP, BAD COP – Mexico 2010

Adaptation at the US Pavilion
by -- December 9th, 2010

Reflections on the US center’s side event on adaptation.

Nancy Sutley, CEQ Chair, speaking at a US side event.

Nancy Sutley, CEQ Chair, speaking at a US side event.

Jana and I attended the US center’s side event on adaptation, hosted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Nancy Sutley, Chair of the CEQ, was the keynote speaker, with Martin Chavez of ICLEI USA and Michael Gibbs of the California EPA rounding out the rest of the panel. Together, they represent the federal, state, and local levels (ICLEI is an association of local governments). Ms. Sutley is one of the three high-profile Obama Administration officials attending the COP-16.

I liked how Mr. Chavez characterized adaptation. He said: in essence, “adaption is an expression of our failure to mitigate.” Indeed, as mitigation efforts have faltered in the US and at the UN negotiations, attention has turned to adaptation, because, unfortunately, it may be too late to prevent some of the worst effects of global warming.

The speakers reiterated a lot of what we already know global warming—that it will bring about wide-ranging impacts, from sea level rise to increased health risks to vulnerable populations. Mr. Gibbs mentioned the threat of declining snow melt on replenishing California’s already scarce water supply.

These impacts are all the more challenging because they are often steps removed from the direct impact of say, temperature change or sea level rise. Global warming impacts are also globally distributed and temporally variable. The enemy we must deal with is like a shape-shifting beast that can strike anywhere, anytime. (How do we adapt to that?!)

Back to adaptation, I thought there were two interesting points I hadn’t considered before. One, Ms. Sutley stressed the importance of integrating adaptation into business-as-usual planning and activity. “In 20 years,” she says, “we will be surprised that this isn’t standard practice.” Stand-alone programs, she says, are not the right way to address adaptation.  For the second point, Mr. Gibbs noted that the more we work on adaptation, the more we’ll realize how expensive it is in comparison to mitigation.  I sure hope that we won’t be the dead frog in the boiling pot by the time we figure that out.

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