Transforming Society for a Climate-Resilient Future Has Never Been More Urgent

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By Rosalind Skillen

Talking about adaptation just before COP27 last year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “it’s time for a global climate adaptation overhaul that puts aside excuses and picks up the toolbox to fix the problems.” He called for a “global surge in adaptation efforts”, especially further adaptation financing to help vulnerable communities in developing countries.

Adaptation means taking action to prepare for predicted impacts of a changing climate. It also requires adapting to irreversible climate impacts that have already been ‘locked in’, like sea level rise or increased temperatures. When we think about adaptation, we often think about it in the context of the Global South: regions where climate catastrophes outstrip peoples’ ability to adapt. Adaptation needs in the developing world are set to skyrocket to as much as $340 billion a year by 2030, and there is an obvious obligation for countries, like Ireland, to step in and scale up financing for adaptation support. At COP27, Ireland announced €5 million for climate adaptation in developing countries and Small Island Developing States. This public, grant-based finance for adaptation represents a step in the right direction, but it needs to be rapidly ramped up.

Turning our attention to Ireland, where we have yet to experience the extent of the devastating impacts of climate change that are a persistent reality for the Global South, it is easy to forget our historic responsibility to build resilience and protect affected communities. However, it is also easy to overlook the need to invest in climate adaptation in our own country. With 40% of the population in Ireland living within 4km of the sea and our major cities – Dublin, Galway, Cork – all under threat, we are foolish to fail to take adaptation seriously. 

The 6th European Climate Change Adaptation Conference focused our attention on this crucial topic. Taking place from 19th to 21st June in Dublin, the conference brought together Europe’s leading adaptation experts to showcase solutions, exchange knowledge, and accelerate the implementation of adaptation solutions at every level. Co-hosted by University College Cork and MaREI, ECCA covered adaptation across varying thematic areas, including sea level rise, coastal change, energy, wellbeing, and finance. Many diverse perspectives are required to develop solutions to adapt to climate challenges, and a variety of stakeholders – academics, researchers, policymakers, local authorities, businesses, investors, NGOs, and youth – were invited to attend and contribute to the conference. 

Over the three days, participants heard about case studies across Europe: droughts in Swedish sea basins, coastal erosion in Scotland, sea level rise in the Balearic Islands, heat stress in France and climate-induced relocation in England. Where climate impacts and challenges were discussed at length, the most holistic examples and assessments not only explored how the climate has changed, but also how society has changed. This served as a helpful reminder: any scenario for climate adaptation must include scenarios for social, political, and economic development. 

For example, think about the psychological aspects of climate adaptation: what happens to your brain when you are told that you will need to relocate because of future climate risks? What does it mean mentally to leave behind your community, culture, and livelihood? Then there are the health impacts: 44 million people in Europe work in agriculture and outdoors. Consider the heat stress impacts on those workers’ productivity and health.

There is also a need to have an honest conversation not only about the potential impacts of adaptation, that stretch far beyond what the average Irish mind can imagine, but also about the price tags attached to the interventions and policies needed. It could cost up to 41 billion a year to finance adaptation in Europe. Unlike climate mitigation actions which boast more immediate profitability, adaptation has a longer-term return and is more costly. This does not make investing in adaptation any less worthwhile, nor should it serve as an argument to delay the advancement of adaptation response. Rather, it reminds us of the scale of the challenge ahead and the need to promote coordination across sectors. Financing climate change adaptation models will require public-private partnerships and scalable funding models, enabling conditions for large-scale social transformation. 

We know that the climate is changing, yet paradoxically, our societies are not changing as a result. Since the last ECCA conference in June 2021, Europe has experienced the warmest summer on record, severe floods have swept across western Europe, and dry conditions have scoured the Mediterranean. In 2022, temperature records were broken in Europe, with a record high temperature in Ireland in July 2022. 16,000 died in Europe because of last year’s heatwaves. It felt particularly striking that the ECCA conference 2023 was also unfolding against the backcloth of an exceptional marine heatwave off the coast of Ireland, with sea temperatures as high as 18 degrees. These extreme and unprecedented temperatures pose threats to marine species and ecosystems, like kelp, seagrass, fish, and oysters. 

Research has shown that climate change will play a role in the frequency and intensity of future extreme floods in Ireland. This would affect houses and residents as well as infrastructure, like the electricity transmission grid. Facing climate hazards, a “wait and see” approach does not seem like a sensible one. The ECCA conference showed that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, when thinking about adaptation options. To enhance the effectiveness, scalability, and sustainability of adaptation solutions, we must also think in places, not projects. We must think in geographies and generations. 

The adaptation mission requires fundamentally rethinking how countries adapt: from process and planning to implementation, governance, and financing. To deliver the right solutions in time, we must move beyond an incremental approach, and radically reimagine and transform our places to enable them to flourish in a future climate. By highlighting examples, expertise, and experiences across the globe, ECCA 2023 reminded us: we are running out of time, but we are certainly not running out of ideas.

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