Friday, November 21, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #14: Agnostic Adaptation

Katrina Fischer Kuh, Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Intellectual Life and Hofstra Research Fellow, Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions (high confidence).  Recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations can benefit decision-making processes.  Indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.  Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.

Decision support is most effective when it is sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies (robust evidence, high agreement).  Organizations bridging science and decision making, including climate services, play an important role in the communication, transfer, and development of climate-related knowledge, including translation, engagement, and knowledge exchange (medium evidence, high agreement).[1]

Agnostic adaptation means adaptation without the why – the divorce of adaptation from knowledge or acceptance of climate change being humans’ fault.  Adaptation is agnostic when one prepares for or responds to an actual or projected climate change-induced impact (e.g., plants a drought-resistant crop) without acknowledging that the adaptation is probabilistically or in fact necessary because of anthropogenic climate change (i.e., that drought conditions are caused or exacerbated by humans’ emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases). 

At the individual level, agnostic adaptation is natural and ubiquitous. When it is uncomfortably hot, people turn on air conditioners, flee to the beach, and visit local park sprinklers just as they gradually and logically update the stock of boots, umbrellas and coats in their closets to match the weather they have become accustomed to experiencing – most often with nary a thought of climate change. Considering how adaptation policy should approach agnostic adaptation is, however, more difficult. Should our domestic adaptation policy connect adaptation to anthropocentric climate change? Should it tolerate, or even facilitate, agnostic adaptation? 

Numerous government policies or programs are purposefully oriented toward preparing for or adjusting to climate change impacts. For example, executive orders direct federal agencies to promote adaptation in various ways, including by preparing Agency Adaptation Plans.[2] The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency Climate Change Adaptation Strategy includes the following:

Action 2: FSA will partner with the REE mission area, as well as NGOs, to publicize and/or make available decision support tools at field offices, facilitating their outreach. An example of such a tool to encourage use of seasonal climate information in farm management decisions is Agroclimate, a project of the Southeast Climate Consortium (Agroclimate 2011).[3]

The Agroclimate website provides detailed information to help farmers better manage climate risks, including those associated with climate change, and features climate risk analyses, drought indices, and a cooling/heating degree days calculator.[4] Although there are a few references to climate change on the website, it is a fair characterization that the website does not emphasize the connection between anthropogenic causes and the climate change adaptation measures that it advances.[5] This, then, appears to provide an example of how adaptation policy may tolerate, if not facilitate, agnostic adaptation in some contexts.

The example chosen here, involving the communication of adaptation strategies to farmers in the southeast, provides a good illustration of possible rationales for incorporating agnostic adaptation into adaptation policy. Many in the United States reject anthropogenic climate change;[6] perhaps agnostic adaptation outreach will make such individuals more receptive to taking adaptive measures. Perhaps farmers in the southeast are more likely to use and trust an agricultural adaptation website that downplays anthropogenic climate change, thereby rendering the agnostic adaptation policy more effective.[7] And because the benefits of effective adaptation accrue locally and to individuals, there is ample incentive for individuals and communities to adapt regardless of their beliefs about why there is a need to adapt. Additionally, predictions about the impacts of climate change are uncertain, particularly at the local level.  Another possible benefit of agnostic adaptation policy is that it may relieve the burden of ascertaining and communicating connections between anthropogenic climate change and specific on-the-ground impacts, thereby conserving resources for direct adaptation measures. 

However, agnostic adaptation policy also raises concerns.  Excising anthropogenic climate change information from adaptation outreach, or simply downplaying the connection between the need to adapt and anthropogenic climate change, may undermine mitigation efforts by obscuring a potentially powerful rationale for mitigation policy – the fact that climate change will threaten the individuals who are the subject of adaptation outreach.[8]  Ultimately, mitigation is a necessary part of successful adaptation because our capacity to adapt could be overwhelmed.  The question thus becomes whether agnostic adaptation policy is better at promoting adaptation in the long run.  This analysis would require weighing any short-term benefit from more effectively spurring adaptive behaviors in skeptical communities against any longer term influence on the pace and scale of mitigation.  

As a practical matter, agnostic adaptation outreach may make it more difficult to structure adaptation policy to promote mitigation co-benefits (decrease emissions) and avoid adverse mitigation side-effects (increase emissions).[9]  (It is hard to promote or discourage an adaptive measure in part because it reduces or produces emissions without first acknowledging that emissions contribute to climate change.)  Agnostic adaptation policy is also somewhat unpalatable from the perspective of international climate justice.  Some of the most compelling normative claims for the United States to contribute to international adaptation or mitigation efforts rest upon recognition of anthropocentric climate change and the United States’ historic and present contribution of greenhouse gas emissions.  Agnostic adaptation may enhance our already superior domestic adaptation capacity in a manner that handicaps the development of public and political support for international adaptation assistance.

Ultimately, evaluating agnostic adaptation policy requires resolution of a series of empirical questions–Will adaptation outreach be more effective if it does not attribute the need for adaptation to climate change and/or attribute climate change to human causes?  What effect does coupling adaptation outreach with information about anthropogenic climate change have on attitudes toward mitigation?–that are better suited to resolution by the social and communication sciences.[10] We should, however, take care to understand the answers to these questions when contemplating agnostic adaptation policy.

[1] WGII: Summary for Policymakers, at 26.

[2] Exec. Order No. 13,514, 74 Fed. Reg. 52,117 (Oct. 8, 2009). Agencies are also instructed to direct federal funding to support climate resilience and to design and implement “land- and water-related policies, programs, and regulations . . . to make the Nation's watersheds, natural resources, and ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them, more resilient in the face of a changing climate.” Exec. Order No. 13,653, 78 Fed. Reg. 66819 (Nov. 6, 2013).

[3] USDA Farm Service Agency Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 39-40 (June 2012).

[4] AgroClimate, Tools for Managing Climate Risk in Agriculture, (lasted visited July 25, 2014). AgroClimate is a product of the Southeast Climate Consortium, a coalition of six universities funded in part by governmental agencies and programs with the mission “to use advances in climate sciences, including improved capabilities to forecast seasonal climate and long-term climate change, to provide scientifically sound information and decision support tools for agricultural ecosystems, forests and other terrestrial ecosystems, and coastal ecosystems of the Southeastern USA.” Southeast Climate Consortium, Mission, (last visited July 25, 2014).

[5] A paper that can be downloaded from the site discusses rainfall intensity and includes one sentencing in a section titled “Climate Change Projections” that provides: “Warmer air can hold more water vapor, and if temperatures continue to rise, the projections of future climate suggest there will be continued increases in high-intensity rain events.”  Southeast Climate Extension, Rainfall Intensity Changes in the Southeastern U.S.  A paper titled “Climate Trends in the Southeast: Temperature” includes a section, “Causes of changes in temperature,” that states: “Most scientists believe that these increases in temperature are due to increases in greenhouse gases, which trap heat near the surface of the earth rather than releasing it back into space.”  Southeast Climate Extension, Climate Trends in the Southeast: Temperature. The site also offers a carbon footprint calculator tool indexed to different crops. 

[6] Gallup Politics, One in Four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming (April 22, 2014) (presenting the results of detailed polling of American regarding attitudes toward and beliefs about climate change), available at (last visited July 27, 2014).

[7] In a similar fashion, in the mitigation context, a kind of veiled mitigation strategy divorces actions to reduce GHG emissions from climate mitigation by suggesting that individuals be encouraged to reduce energy use or take other measures that will reduce emissions for reasons other than avoided climate change, such as energy independence or thrift. Roger A. Pielke, Jr., The Case for A Sustainable Climate Policy: Why Costs and Benefits Must Be Temporally Balanced, 155 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1843, 1850 (2007) (“Ultimately, motivating local action to mitigate global climate change calls for an indirect strategy, focused on the ways in which emissions-producing activities are embedded in broader community concerns. The primary benefit of an indirect approach is that it avoids many of the political debates about climate change science that have plagued international efforts to address this issue.”).

[8] Cara Pike, Adaptation Communications: An Overview of the Research and Practice (March 21, 2013), available at (last visited July 27, 2014) (observing that education about climate impacts can increase interest in mitigation and that “[u]nderstanding of adaptation can lead to heightened interest in mitigation but more on the ground examples are needed.”).

[9] For a discussion of the need for and benefits of holistic climate change governance considering both mitigation and adaptation, see Katherine Trisolini, Holistic Climate Change Governance: Towards Mitigation and Adaptation Synthesis, 85 U. Colo. L. Rev. 615 (2014).

[10] The site Climate Access compiles research into climate change communication, including with respect to adaptation outreach.  Climate Access, Resource Hub, An interesting forthcoming study is Amanda Carrico, et al., Does learning about climate change adaptation change support for mitigation?.

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