Estimating the limits of adaptation from historical behaviour: Insights from the American Climate Prospectus

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Amir Jina, Columbia University of New York, Palisades, NY, United States, Solomon M Hsiang, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States, Robert E Kopp III, Rutgers University New Brunswick, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, New Brunswick, NJ, United States, DJ Rasmussen, Rhodium Group, Oakland, CA, United States and James Rising, Columbia University in the City of New York, New York, NY, United States
The American Climate Prospectus (ACP), the technical analysis underlying the Risky Business project, quantitatively assessed the climate risks posed to the United States’ economy in a number of economic sectors [1]. The main analysis presents projections of climate impacts with an assumption of “no adaptation”. Yet, historically, when the climate imposed an economic cost upon society, adaptive responses were taken to minimise these costs. These adaptive behaviours, both autonomous and planned, can be expected to occur as climate impacts increase in the future.

To understand the extent to which adaptation might decrease some of the worst impacts of climate change, we empirically estimate adaptive responses. We do this in three sectors considered in the analysis - crop yield, crime, and mortality – and estimate adaptive capacity in two steps. First, looking at changes in climate impacts through time, we identify a historical rate of adaptation. Second, spatial differences in climate impacts are then used to stratify regions into more adapted or less adapted based on climate averages. As these averages change across counties in the US, we allow each to become more adapted at the rate identified in step one. We are then able to estimate the residual damages, assuming that only the historical adaptive behaviours have taken place (fig 1).

Importantly, we are unable to estimate any costs associated with these adaptations, nor are we able to estimate more novel (for example, new technological discoveries) or more disruptive (for example, migration) adaptive behaviours.

However, an important insight is that historical adaptive behaviours may not be capable of reducing the worst impacts of climate change. The persistence of impacts in even the most exposed areas indicates that there are non-trivial costs associated with adaptation that will need to be met from other sources or through novel behavioural changes.

References: [1] T. Houser et al. (2014), American Climate Prospectus, www.climateprospectus.org.