All countries in the world urgently need to adapt to climate change but are not yet in a good position to do so. It’s urgent because we are not even adapted to the present climate. This fact is underscored by recent weather-related calamities, such as flooding in Central Europe and heatwaves over North America. It’s also urgent because the oceans act like a flywheel, making sure that cuts in emission of greenhouse gases will have a lagged effect on global warming.
Climate change adaptation was addressed in the Paris Agreement from 2015, the Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021, and will be one of four key priorities during the upcoming COP26. Proper climate adaptation of course needs meteorological and climatological data for mapping weather-related risks to prepare us for future extreme weather. However, I would argue that the climate research community has not had a visible presence during any of these meetings. Instead the summits have been dominated by politicians and NGOs.
Climate scientists can help policy-makers by explaining the risks and opportunities. We already have useful information based on past trends, current status and future projections, all of which require good data and models. There have been vast resources invested into brilliant knowledge hubs such as Copernicus C3S and NASA, so why not use it for all it’s worth? It’s also important to use the best information in the right way, and climate scientists can help with that. There is always a risk of misinterpreting the numbers.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published its Working Group 1 report on physical climate change, and the report from Working Group 2 on impacts is due early next year. Such reports provide a summary of the state of our knowledge, but are not sufficiently specific for climate change adaptation. Policy-makers come from different backgrounds, and may read and interpret the IPCC’s reports differently, so climate scientists still have a role in explaining what the implications are in each particular case.
Our understanding on how regional climates will unfold in the future is very limited and the outcomes are uncertain. More uncertainty leaves more room for interpretations. Regional climate modelling, involving downscaling of global climate models, is still riddled with challenges and unsolved problems. Hence, there are different opinions regarding the best way to calculate regional climate outlooks, as I’ve explained in a recent discussion paper. Nevertheless, it’s a key part for climate adaptation.
The research by climate scientists is often coordinated through the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which aims to facilitate activities to produce better regional climate information for society. This network, however, is both unfunded and very slow because its members have to dedicate much of their time to other funded activities.
The WCRP stages the COrdinated Regional Downscaling EXperiment (CORDEX) for advancing the science underpinning regional climate modelling. In some ways it has been a success, but there are some shortcomings. Most of CORDEX’s activities are still geared towards improving methods, while the questions about what information to use and how to use it are still unsettled. In that sense, CORDEX is still thinking in traditional ways, but needs to involve more statisticians to extract the best information from all the numbers.
There are different ways to use model results for adaptation, and climate adaptation needs inclusive and comprehensive science discussions about regional climate data, social science and the use of statistics. In other words, climate adaptation needs an inclusive bottom-up approach rather than top down.
We can move forward with a stronger presence of climate scientists in climate summits and by supporting WRCP so that the scientists working on climate modelling can dedicate more of their time on making progress in terms of regional climate modelling, data rescue and distilling crucial information for climate adaptation.
In summary, we have little time, climate change adaptation must involve climate scientists, and the climate science community needs to get up to speed. So far there has been a contrast between the message of urgency and the resources dedicated to dealing with climate change.