The Role of Adaptation in the U.S.

Coping with Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States


Throughout the next century and beyond, global climate change will have significant effects on both important economic sectors and natural resources across the United States.   Global temperatures are projected to increase 2.5-10.4oF by 2100, and at least some of this warming is now unavoidable.   Although the natural streams, wetlands, and biodiversity of the United States have a limited capacity to adapt to a changing climate, those systems that are managed by humans, such as agriculture, water resources, and coastal development can be handled in ways to reduce the severity of adverse impacts.

Adaptation and Global Climate Change discusses how the United States might cope with anticipated climate change impacts in the coming decades.   This report provides a review of the role of adaptation in addressing climate change, the options available for increasing our ability to adapt, and the extent to which adaptation can reduce the consequences of climate change to the U.S. economy and natural resources.  Report authors Bill Easterling, Brian Hurd, and Joel Smith find:

  • Adaptation is an important complement to greenhouse gas mitigation policies. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the only effective mechanism for preventing adverse impacts of climate change.  However, given that additional future climate change is now inevitable regardless of mitigation efforts, adaptation is an essential strategy for reducing the severity and cost of climate change impacts.
  • Adapting to climate change will not be a smooth or cost-free endeavor.  Although the United States has diverse options and resources for adapting to the adverse effects of climate change, changes will be made in an atmosphere of uncertainty.  Substantial investments and adjustments will need to be made even with imperfect information or foresight, and successful adaptation will become even more challenging with more rapid rates or greater degrees of warming.
  • Managed systems will fare better than natural systems and some regions will face greater obstacles than others. Even if there are some successes in adapting to climate change at the national level, there will still be regional and sectoral losers.  In particular, there is limited ability for humans to improve the adaptive capacity of natural ecosystems, which are not as easily managed and which face degradation from multiple stresses.
  • Proactive approaches to adaptation are more likely to avoid or reduce damages than reactive responses.   Anticipatory planning among government institutions and important economic sectors will enhance the resilience to the effects of climate change.  Government at all levels should consider the implications of climate change when making investments in long-lived infrastructure.

The authors and the Pew Center gratefully acknowledge the input of Drs. Gary Yohe and Paul Kirshen on this report.