From Analogy to Chronology

By Nikolai Sindorf, WWF-US

My job is to help conservation scientists and economic development professionals get ready for the impacts of climate change related to water. And today, I want to write about how we imagine a climate change warning label: “Use before 2050.” Reading current discussions on climate change based on global climate models, or on specific climate scenarios, 2050 is when “it” is going to happen — whatever it is.

I have never fully understood snapshot approaches to climate change studies that compare the current situation to 2050s. They do not tell the complete story of how climate change will affect particular places. Like a bad movie review, they actually spoil the plot as they reveal the ending, distracting us from focusing on the story as a process of change over time. The important difference between now and 2050 is not only “a projected 20% decrease in annual rainfall” (you can find many similar quotes on the web); the real difference between now and 2050 is that, in 2050, ecosystems and human communities will already have experienced an extra 40 years of increased climate fluctuation and variability. And this increased variability will have a big impact on humans and other species that may actually be more important than just talking about a change in the annual average rainfall. The latter snapshot approach often oversimplifies the complexity of change, while it gives a false sense of our capacity to accurately anticipate and prepare for change.

In a way, my job is to help people think about how to be good consumers of climate change projections — something that is important for regular people as they read newspaper stories that talk about what kinds of impacts might be happening in their region. For instance, projecting a significant decrease in annual rainfall over a 40-year period will probably have the same impact on people as Thursday’s weather forecast. If someone wants to compare annual rainfall, why not just compare New York to Houston, Sapporo, or Addis Ababa? The latter three cities all have similar amounts of annual rainfall even though they are in the Texas, Japan, and Ethiopia, respectively. A 20 percent decrease in annual rainfall would then probably mean the same as moving to Buenos Aires, Sidney, or Seattle. Reading that, you might conclude, No worries, people still survive there! What I am driving at is that annual rainfall is not very useful as a metric for climate change, though it is very commonly used. But, annual metrics like rainfall lack the essential balance at which adaptation has to be anticipated. Seasonality and inter-annual variation are really much more important in describing how people and ecosystems experience climate and weather: a 20% decrease in annual rainfall could still mean increased floods in April. And just as important to note, our climate will continue to change after 2050.

If these trends seem depressing, that’s because we are indeed facing major shifts in how we live on the planet, whether we want to accept them or not. But there is a strong positive message here too: if we have the right approach to understanding change, we can respond and anticipate those impacts appropriately. And we can help people (and other species) adjust together. That is the hopeful message of my work.

A lot of the message focuses on helping people think clearly and correctly about processes of change in climate and water. Communicating concepts of change is one of the biggest challenges faced by the climate adaptation community. “Change” in itself is something that has to be experienced and cannot be fully understood, or learned, just by before-to-after comparison of projections. On the most basic level “I told you so!” can be a hard (and useless) lesson if it comes after the harm has already happened. On another level, this means we have to start thinking beyond projections towards the trajectories of change and of how to communicate these. What this implies is that it’s not at all about how bad the 2050 situation will turn out, but that it’s about what is next... Climate adaptation discussions should therefore make a more concerted effort to slowly move from analogy to chronology. We have to recognize that change is the norm now, probably for centuries.

One of the issues that I am working on as a conservation hydrologist at WWF is to develop new approaches in order to communicate climate and development sensitivities to people and nature who depend on (natural) water systems. This is part of a concerted effort where we are working on river basins all over the world, at different levels, to assess and map out these vulnerabilities. For example, I am working on an assessment on the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers of south Asia, looking at what which streams will be first impacted by a gradual increase in air temperature. Preliminary results already show that this is playing out very locally because of regional geology and the dependence on melting snow for the water in these rivers. In some systems, substantial impacts could be realized at minor (but chronic) temperature increases. I hope to discuss outcomes of this study once they become more robust.

For this blog, I intend to discuss issues of climate change, climate adaptation, and how people (including myself) will try to get handles on climate change anticipation, mainly focused on the water, conservation, and development sectors.