Adapt to survive
Climate change is already happening, and that means we face a dual challenge. The world must sharply cut its emissions of greenhouse gases to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic proportions later this century. And we need to adapt to current and future climatic changes in order to limit their adverse impacts on our daily lives, the economy and the environment.
The summer of 2007 saw extreme weather conditions in Europe. A series of heatwaves made south-eastern Europe swelter under some of its hottest temperatures ever, killing hundreds of elderly people and causing deadly forest fires over wide areas. Meanwhile, Britain was hit by near-record levels of rainfall that caused serious flooding across parts of England and Wales. Several people died and thousands more were driven from their homes.
Although the types of extreme weather were very different, the results were similar – human and animal deaths, damage to property and disruption to infrastructure, businesses, agriculture and people’s lives. No one can say for sure if these events were caused by climate change, but they are in line with the impacts it is projected to have.
The world has warmed by an average of 0.76°C since 1850 and the temperature rise is accelerating. There is a global scientific consensus that this increase is largely due to the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests to make farmland.
Global warming will continue getting worse until the world manages to cut emissions of these gases to substantially below today's levels – an effort that is likely to take several decades. In the meantime southern Europe will become hotter and drier, northern Europe wetter. Storms and droughts will become more common and more severe. The higher temperatures go, the faster glaciers and polar ice will melt and sea levels will rise.
These and other impacts of climate change are to some extent predictable. By being prepared for them, we can minimise the damage, disruption and cost they will cause. This is what adapting to climate change is about.
The Vistula Delta area around the Baltic Sea port of Gdańsk in Poland provides a good example of adaptation in practice. It is one of the most flood-prone areas in the region, but now also one of the best prepared. Researchers have investigated the likely impacts of climate change, including expected sea-level rises over the long term, and have factored these into planning for coastal protection measures such as sea walls.
Their efforts are part of a joint project (the ASTRA project) that anticipates the effects of climate change in several Baltic coastal areas of Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland and tries to identify the areas most at risk.
For instance, some low-lying areas near the sea will become vulnerable to flooding and coastal erosion, posing a danger to people’s homes, industrial plants and tourist facilities. Higher temperatures can affect the nutrient levels in river estuaries and disrupt marine life.
The scientists give an outlook for what is likely to happen in each region and recommend what actions governments and local authorities should take. Of particular importance are the changes needed to town planning, flood defences and river management. Knowledge is shared between the different countries, helping them to prepare for climate change most effectively.