The University of Arizona

Climate Risk Management – Looking for Win-Win Options

November 13, 2012
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¡Hola! I’ve been on sabbatical in Latin America for the last several months, and will be moving to Melbourne In January to work with, and learn from, the terrific climate scientists and risk managers there. I’m still tweeting regularly (@TucsonPeck) on Southwest climate and energy, as well as on more global issues and climate-related issues in places we’re visiting, for example the Galapagos where I’ve been working for 2.5 months.

I’m also trying to keep up with what other folks have been talking about on the climate front, and one thing recently came up that is too much for a simple tweet. It started with a compelling post on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earthblog  Revkin laments that top African scientists are advocating a primary focus on climate change, when in fact climate variability (for example, decades-long droughts) should be getting just as much attention. He is correct.

The issue is close to my heart and academic focus. I’m a climate scientist interested in understanding climate issues of relevance to society, and in partnering with a wide range of stakeholders in society who might be able to use this climate understanding.

In the Southwest, our climate challenge is multi-fold. We are in the bulls-eye of rapid anthropogenic climate change in the U.S., warming up dramatically, with an ever-increasing list of clear climate change impacts: hotter, more severe, drought; declining water resources in key river systems; major upticks in tree death and wildfire; and in coastal areas, rising sea due to global warming. Anthropogenic climate change isn’t a “futures debate” in the Southwest – its already happening. Indeed, the SW was one of the first regions of the globe where climate change has been scientifically attributed to human increases in greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Wind turbines between Deming and Hatch, NM. Photo credit: Jonathan OverpeckThe Southwest is literally already baking because of our reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Ironically, we’re also the region of the US that would most benefit, in terms of jobs and economic growth, from shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, mainly from the sun and wind. It would be a total win-win for the Southwest to take action on climate change.

This brings me to the concept of “climate risk management.” Meeting the climate challenge isn’t just about reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, just about lowering emissions of greenhouse gases, just about adapting to a tighter water supply, just about managing our rapidly transforming landscapes, or just dealing with natural climate variability including, most notably drought. Rather, meeting our climate challenge is about all of the above – it is about climate risk management, and considering all the tools at hand.

As nicely highlighted in her comment on Revkin’s Dot Earth post, Amy Luers makes this point, and she’s who got me to think that climate risk management is ultimately what we need to be all about. We can’t just adapt to climate change, or just deal with climate variability (anthopogenic or not), or just mitigate (reduce emissions of greenhouse gases) or debate geoengineering. We need to consider all of these as options for reducing risk associated with climate variability and change.

Luers goes into more detail in a blog she posted in 2008 where her focus is on the need to consider both climate variability and change when talking about climate impacts and options for dealing with, or preparing for, these impacts.

My point today is merely to agree with Revkin and Luers and many others who have made this point through the last decade or longer: When thinking, talking, or dealing with the climate challenge, consider all of its facets. This way of thinking isn’t new to me, but it’s very worth highlighting again and again. Whether we’re talking about the US Southwest or sub-Saharan Africa or other dry regions, ,making society (and nature) more resilient to drought is a win-win—it helps us with natural drought (which, as Revkin notes, can be far worse than what we’ve seen so far) as well as anthropogenic climate change. It also helps us understand better what our adaptation limits really are, and thus the levels of mitigation that are needed—including the level of greenhouse gas emissions reductions are really needed.

But don’t forget that a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a win-win, whether you are in the US-Mexican Southwest or sub-Saharan Africa – this would provide more jobs, improve the economy and preclude the much-worse “hot” droughts that might overwhelm us in the future. Climate risk management can’t get by on adaption alone, and the good news is that there are probably many win-win situations if we think hard enough.