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Time to begin 'adapting' to climate change?

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One element that should help guide the region's adaptation measures is a hydrology model developed over the past two years at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "We're at the point now where we can play what-if games in the virtual world to see what would be effective ... it's now starting to bear fruit," he says.

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"The reality is that we should be adapting" and tackling carbon-dioxide emissions at the same time, notes Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Realizing need for adaptation

As early as 1992, he says, the US National Academy of Science recognized that adaptation needed to play a key role in humanity's response to global warming.

Some analysts argue that demoting adaptation efforts to the status of "poorer cousin" to emissions reductions in the public debate has cost precious time.

"We've known for 100 years that if you pump enough CO2 into the atmosphere, you're going to get global warming," says Daniel Sarewitz, a science-policy specialist at Arizona State University in Tempe. Despite the conviction that humans are warming the climate expressed in the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, specific aspects of the science remain riddled with uncertainties. This holds especially true for models trying to project regional effects, he says.

"We spend all this effort trying to understand climate dynamics, but the major variables are the interactions within society and between society and climate," he says, referring to everything from populations exploding along vulnerable coastlines to decisions about what types of crops to plant.

For example, Dr. Noble notes that in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, efforts to encourage growers to replace groundwater- gulping rice with grains that grow better in a drier climate are hitting a wall. "Farmers know that they'd be better off growing millet or sorghum," he says. "But there's no market for millet. If they have to live on what they produce, they'd rather produce rice than millet."

And while some of the highest-profile adaptation challenges may come from severe weather events, Noble adds that "ordinary" weather events can still pose enormous hardship, particularly in the developing world.

If "normal" rain comes in less-frequent but more-intense storms, one storm "could wash away half your crop. That doesn't qualify as a disaster, so you don't get disaster relief," Noble says. In that case, adaptation measures could range from runoff control efforts to government policies establishing crop insurance where it doesn't exist now. It also means building roads and bridges far more resilient in the face of flooding.

Ironically, many measures needed to adapt to global warming come from the same toolkit disaster planners and development agencies use today. "Adaptation means doing the things you do now, but doing them much better," he says.

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