Climate, weather and human adaptation

“Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.” This saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, provides an entry to thinking about climate adaptation. Weather is directly felt and seen and it’s easy to plan for. We look at the five-day forecast, we see that it’s going to be cooler, and we pull that box of sweaters down from the attic. But climate is different. It refers to long-term temperature and precipitation averages for a given region, which we can’t directly experience through our senses. Plus, changes to climate can have much larger impacts than making us feel hotter or colder on a given day. So what does it mean to adapt when the climate is forecast to change?

First, we need to understand a little bit about adaptation. The history of humankind is one of adaptation. As a species, our adaptability has allowed us to inhabit the farthest regions of the globe. We adapt par tly through technologies, such as the irrigation technologies that allow farmers to raise crops in regions where rainfall is too low or too unpredictable to guarantee regular production. But technological adaptations almost always require cultural and social adaptations as well. For example, irrigation works when we also have the appropriate social institutions, such as federal law to guarantee water rights and help manage water allocation decisions. To adapt effectively, we need to think about both of these types of change.

Next, we need to understand what climate adaptation means. The concept of climate as we think about it today began to develop in the early 19th century as travelers and explorers began to record and collect weather observations from around the world. These observations allowed scientists to quantify and standardize measures of climate, and eventually to forecast future climates. As a result, not only do we know what to expect during the coming summer, but also what our climate may look like in future years or decades. Climate adaptation relates to both these short-term and long-term expectations.

While much of the climate discussion we hear about is focused on the national and international scale, many cities are developing their own local adaptation plans that respond to current and future climate risks, including heat waves, sea level rise, storm surges, droughts and floods, and changes in frost dates, among others.

An approach common in all of the plans is to focus not only on developing and implementing technologies, but also to develop systems for assessing local climate vulnerabilities and making and implementing decisions in partnership with the local communities. Examples of adaptation from city and regional plans include retrofitting existing infrastructure so that it can withstand heavier storms; mapping potential changes in floodplains; restoring or maintaining environmental buffers, such as forests, which preserve soil moisture, slow precipitation run-off, and moderate flooding; developing crop varieties that are more tolerant of heat, drought or saline soils; and increasing energy efficiency and pursuing renewable energy sources.

Selecting the best local adaptations is a complex process that must account for a diverse range of citizen viewpoints and values. One way to address this challenge is to identify ‘no regret’ adaptations, which are actions that yield social, economic, or environmental benefits even in the absence of climate change. Examples of no-regret adaptations include enhancing emergency services including early warning systems, reducing water loss in municipal water systems, and improving storm water management. These types of adaptations will not be sufficient to buffer us from some of the projected change, but they are an easy step forward that most people can agree upon.

We would love to hear your stories about ways that you are thinking about climate and ways that you have responded when weather surprises you with something unexpected.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.



Original Citation: Coweeta Listening Project. The Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. December 20, 2013.