Bats are boiling and green turtles are turning female: how close are we to adaptation limits?

This week’s Twitter feed has been particularly concerning, some would say crazy, regarding the changes and shifts in weather and climate trends that are occurring worldwide. In Australia, bats are boiling in the sky  and the asphalt is literally melting as heatwaves have come through in various parts of the country. In the US, NOAA has just released a report announcing that 2017 was and is the costliest year on record for weather and climate related disasters, and 2017 is also the 3rd warmest year on record for the US.

Terry Hughes, Professor at James Cook University, was just part of a large study looking at the bleaching of coral reefs worldwide. The study concluded that bleaching events are occurring more frequently, which means that the reefs do not have time to recover in between the events. This shorter space between events, such as natural disasters, was also a concern in a study that we did with disaster agencies in Australia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu: many of the staff and volunteers have had their rest and recovery periods shortened as the disasters seem to be occurring more and more frequently.

What worries me is that these kinds of news are coming through daily, with studies after another noting how particular trends have shifted and changed over time. This is not about a fluke event, an anomaly that can’t be explained, but most of these studies are starting to clearly show a trend towards warmer temperatures and even unexpected impacts such as bats boiling and turtles changing sex. As much as it would be nice to think that we’ll be alright and just need to get on with things, the future is starting to look rather bleak for many of the core ecosystems and their services that we rely on. What would the world look like if there was no Great Barrier Reef, or the keystone species such as turtles would have disappeared?

Our book on Limits to Climate Change Adaptation could not be more timely the more that I read news and hear about these impacts. Many of the chapters really provide detailed explanations how communities are relocating in the Pacific and what different impacts really mean in practice. To me, all of these discussions signal the increased necessity to study and collect these changes in a systematic manner so that we have a better understanding of the concept of adaptation limits and also how we know when we are dangerously close to one.

So far much of the literature has focused on conceptualising adaptation limits but we now need to move past that and start really thinking what constitutes an adaptation limit in practice, how that evaluation is done and how we can build in signals in our planning systems, business plans, and community observations about when a limit is seen to be close enough. For a community living on a tropical island, this could be an instance when the reef is being bleached x number of times a year, reducing significantly the potential to fish and use the natural resources associated with the reef. Bleached reefs will also have an impact on the scale of coastal protection they can give, another important area for further research.

As the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 degrees and the Sixth Assessment Report are getting underway, the concept of adaptation limits needs serious attention. This is not a matter of inserting a synthesis table on adaptation limits in one chapter but needs to be considered in each sectoral chapter especially under Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, and also in the Special Report.

There is a clear linkage also here to the concept of Loss and Damage (L&D) and that evidence base is still also very anecdotal, which means that much of this information and case studies are unlikely to reach the IPCC process. Documenting these cases has already begun in the peer-reviewed literature (e.g. in Climate and Development journal and by Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative) but more comprehensive assessments are necessary especially on country and community levels. In these processes, we need to also think how we deal with missing or shifting baseline data and what that means for robust assessment.

But in the end, this is not just about science but about the way we live our lives and how the things we treasure, such as amazing wildlife, coral reefs, and nature in general, might in for a ride of a lifetime that is not going to end up well. I do have hope that people making these decisions will wake up and there is so much innovation already happening in the energy and technology space. But the actual question as to how far we have already moved towards particular limits still remains. For this end, the scientific community is gathering such knowledge but the political systems and businesses will need to also get on board and use that knowledge.

For my part, I do want to understand the decision-making processes better in governments and businesses, and how science could support or inform such processes in a way that is useful both from scientific, business and political perspectives. Not every event or impact can be traced directly to climate change but having seen the science, for me personally it is high time to move past the ‘true-or-not’ debate and start thinking strategically how we can deal with what is happening already now in a more insightful manner. Now if anyone can tell me how to do this effectively…

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