Coping with Change, continued

The most obvious customers for such a product are farmers, given the loss in yields that may be occasioned by hotter summers. But one can even go so far as to take out futures contracts on the amount of snow that will fall in a given city, say New York or Chicago. Those who own the contracts receive a payout for every extra inch of snowfall above the average. Not a bad deal for the winter of 2010–11: The Windy City averages 38 inches of snow a winter—and just received more than 50 inches for the fourth straight year.

Similarly, aid organizations such as the U.N. World Food Programme have bought insurance against climate change impacts. In 2006, the organization purchased insurance from AXA Re against the potential for catastrophic drought in Ethiopia. The policy stipulated that if rainfall dropped below a certain minimum amount, millions of dollars in insurance money would be paid out, in effect pre-funding the organization’s emergency response. Such "catastrophe bonds" have seen a sharp increase in use in the past year.

Preparing for the future

Red Cross and Red Crescent societies move in when disaster strikes. According to their own analyses, the emergency aid organizations have seen a doubling of weather-related disasters since 1990. So the aid groups established a Climate Centre in 2002 to help them adapt to a world of more frequent catastrophe. The idea is to prepare for disasters before they happen rather than simply respond to them afterwards. So, for example, a simple action like regularly clearing storm drains can cut down on the damage caused by an unexpectedly heavy or long-lasting downpour.

Roughly $30 billion has been promised to fund adaptation efforts in the poorest countries going forward, as a result of last fall’s climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico. International financial organizations such as the World Bank have begun to make loans specifically tied to adapting to climate change. For example, "Climate Investment Funds" offer loans and grants to countries to fund adaptation efforts, such as building renewable energy projects or helping farmers adapt to new weather conditions. Such loans are not without controversy, though, since some view them as having people who had little to do with climate change to pay for its impacts.

The key is making sure that relevant actions are taken when the timing is appropriate.

"Planting trees against increased flood risks is likely an excellent action in some regions to adapt to climate change-related risks, but it is not what you do when a hurricane is imminent," says Maarten van Alst, lead climate specialist at the Red Cross's Climate Centre. "And sea level rise is a serious threat for the Netherlands, but we do not start evacuating Amsterdam tomorrow."

In the end, the extent of the need to adapt to a warming world will depend on how much warming we choose to take on. The average temperature of the planet for the next several thousand years will be determined this century by those of us living today. Changing our lifestyles to minimize the adaptation burden we bequeath to future generations may prove the biggest adaptation challenge of all.

As atmospheric scientist Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, comparing CO2 emissions to cheesecake: "If I knew that every pound of cheesecake that I ate would give me a pound that could never be lost, I think I would eat a lot less cheesecake."

DAVID BIELLO is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on environment and energy. He is also host of Beyond the Light Switch, a PBS television documentary airing this spring that examines the U.S. power supply.

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Climate Change Adaptation in the Netherlands

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