Thirty Percent Increase in Precipitation by 2100: STOP SAYING THAT!

By Shaun Martin, WWF-US

It’s Monday morning, October 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy is strengthening as she approaches the US east coast. In Washington, DC the US federal government is closed, public transport has ceased operations, and WWF staff have an unexpected day out of the office. While I still have power at home, I thought this would be as good a time as any to talk about how our communications have caused people to view climate change as a slow-onset problem for the future rather than a clear and present concern of today.

Just a few weeks ago, a colleague entered my office to explain that poaching is something we need to work on immediately if we want to save rhinos while climate change is something that will happen in the future. Last week participants in a project planning workshop had trouble factoring climate change into their plans for the next several years since it was a longer term issue. Earlier this year when I told someone working in commodities that major citrus producing areas could become unsuitable for production, he wanted to know “by when?”

I see this all the time and I cannot help but think the way we talk about climate change is causing the unfortunate perception that addressing the effects of rapid change is something that can wait, even among the most enlightened of us. Statements like “We could see a 30 percent increase in precipitation by 2100” are, I believe, partly to blame. It reinforces the notion that climate change is a slow-moving, gradual trend that will culminate in 2050 or 2100, and perhaps even worse, that average effects like a “30 percent increase in rainfall” or a “2.5oC increase in global mean temperature” will be tolerable. It can give people unfounded hope that by then we will have solved the climate change problem through successful mitigation efforts and thus the need to adapt to change altogether.

Even with extreme events and the need for adaptation becoming more prominent in the media, still far too many climate change communications I read, whether a news article or a vulnerability assessment, begin with projections about the far future. When we are planning for the next 5 to 10 years, these projections are all but meaningless. Most people have a difficult time thinking beyond their own lifetimes, or the next financial quarter, or the current election cycle. There are simply too many unforeseeable events to make this a practical exercise. So if climate change is not perceived as something that is affecting us now, then there is little need to think about it and plan for it.

That conclusion is, of course, terribly misguided. Climate change is most definitely not an imperceptible, slow moving force that travels along the mean of global temperature increase. Climate change manifests itself through increasingly frequent and severe weather events that we have already begun to and will continue to see all the way to 2100 and beyond (as well as slow-onset phenomena such as glacial melt, seasonal shifts, and sea level rise). It is these “surprises” – things we cannot accurately predict more than a few months or weeks ahead of time – and not the average trend, that most concern adaptation practitioners and planners.

To my friend who works on rhino poaching, this year’s floods in northeast India were responsible for 16 rhino deaths in Kaziranga National Park and led to an increase in poaching outside the park. Yes, we must continue to fight poaching, but focusing solely on anti-poaching efforts will not solve the rhino’s problems with extreme events. If you are concerned about global citrus production, it is not as if orange harvests will suddenly plummet when we reach some magical point in the future, or will even show a steady year-by-year decline. Rather a more likely scenario will be sharp declines in some years, often in years with extreme weather events, followed by recovery in subsequent years. Low production years will become increasingly frequent and recoveries less robust over time, until oranges are no longer commercially viable.

Damage due to Hurricane Sandy on NY’s upper west side (101 street, between West End and Broadway) © Mr.choppers

Damage due to Hurricane Sandy on NY’s upper west side (101 street, between West End and Broadway) © Mr.choppers

We can plan for near-term surprise extreme events and the barriers they create to achieving our missions. Rainwater harvesting is an excellent example of how communities can take advantage of high-intensity precipitation events to prepare for increasingly longer dry seasons. Companies that rely on agricultural commodities can begin to diversify their supply chains, rather than relying on single sources and economies of scale, to decrease their risk of poor harvests in any single production area. The problem is not that there are no solutions, but that people are not thinking about climate change as a clear and present concern.

To encourage people to start thinking about the present and near-term future, we should refrain from leading our climate communications with long-term projections. Save those for later. Long-term projections have their place, but I believe it is best not to use them when trying to persuade others to begin adapting to change. Rather, begin by talking about observed trends for which you have reliable data with special attention given to trends in extreme events. It is not very persuasive to say that your region has experienced a 1oC increase in average July temperatures over the last century. It is better to say that summer heat waves have increased in intensity and duration over the last 30 years (if that is indeed the case) and that we expect this trend to continue. Or what was once a 100-year flood is more likely to occur every 20 years, etc. You can talk about the impacts that recent extreme events have had on the area and how these kinds of events pose increased risk for the future. Then start talking the need to begin planning for a future that looks very different from our past, and finally begin a dialogue on sensible near-term and longer-term options to reduce vulnerability.

Over the next few days, I hope to see that the Washington, DC area has learned the lesson of the need to prepare for surprises. And so far it seems it has. After this year’s super derecho, which left thousands without power or water for more than a week, preventative measures were taken to reduce risk to power lines. Coastal areas have been evacuated. Emergency management teams stand ready to respond if necessary. Little by little we learn to adapt when we understand the presence of a current and ongoing threat. Perhaps in the future we will begin to put more power lines underground, establish climate-smart zoning for development in coastal areas, and rely less on emergency response and more on preparedness.