Preparing for the Unknown


A Nepali mountain farmer at work. Neplal’s agricultural secotr is particularly vulnerable to varying weather patterns caused by climate change.
Photo Credit: Bob Webster.

We have good reason to believe that the climate we have come to know is changing. The IPCC reports that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased” (2013). Human society is facing conditions it has never seen before, and as these changes continue, our ways of life that have worked in the past may no longer hold up. We will need to meet new problems with new solutions.
For some activities, the relationship with the climate is already fragile, and continuing changes threaten to make the situation even more difficult. The agricultural situation in Nepal provides a good example. IDS-Nepal reports that the sector relies heavily on seasonal rainfall, and variations can have heavy impacts. In the past, “floods, droughts and erratic rainfall” have all impacted the industry, and productivity has been closely linked with seasonal weather and climate (6). Too much rain can flood fields; too little prevents crops from growing; rainfall too late in the growing season can damage the harvest. In fact, changing weather cycles are already causing hardship for Nepali farmers (Reck). If climate change completely upends seasonal patterns, farmers may not be able to grow crops using current methods, and they will have to develop new strategies. The sooner people can adapt, the fewer damages they are likely to face, and the same goes for any change we make in response to climate change.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict exactly what conditions we need to prepare for. We can use computer generated climate models to make educated guesses, but they are not accurate or precise enough to inform a highly specialized plan for adaptation.The calculations rely on assumptions about greenhouse gas concentration levels, which may change as countries make or break commitments to reduce emissions. Predictions vary based on which emissions scenario is assumed and which model is used. Even projections of average temperature may contradict one another, and predictions of precipitation vary even more widely (57). Therefore, we cannot say with confidence that any one event will actually happen, and specific preparation for that event would not be very useful. However, these predictions taken together can still shed light on the possible impact of future events, which can inform policy decisions (86). A general idea of the challenges we might face is better than none at all.
By cross checking a variety of models, IDS-Nepal has developed a comprehensive report on the possible regional consequences for Nepal. All of the regional models dependably show a temperature increase (55). Although the models are much less consistent on precipitation, many warn of a rainier monsoon season (63). They also project that floods are likely to become more severe and more frequent (113). The results vary widely by model and by region, creating a lot of uncertainty. However, IDS-Nepal urges that people take these uncertainties into account while still preparing to adapt.Rather than indicating that preparation is hopeless, the wide range of possible changes indicates a need to increase flexibility. By developing multiple adaptation strategies, people can have an array of options to choose from so all is not lost when one falls through. For example, farmers in Nepal might benefit from growing a wide variety of crops that have different growing cycles or thrive in different conditions. Increased use of irrigation would provide more control over how much water their crops receive, so farmers would not have to rely so heavily on natural rain patterns. Government actions might include financing these changes, building infrastructure like dams and levees to keep rising rivers at bay, and setting up relief programs to respond to future disasters. Of course, all of these adaptations would draw on limited resources, and it would be impossible to specifically prepare for every possible scenario. Setting a broad foundation, however, could ease the transition to future adaptations. As models become more accurate and the situation in the real world unfolds, responses can become more targeted. In the meantime, the current models’ predictions provide a good starting point.



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