Professor Judith ReesA lot of your research focuses on adapting to climate change. How would you define adaptation?

Climate change is one of the most complex challenges that humanity faces today. It is occurring now and, given the inactivity in the climate system, will continue for decades to come. Adaptation to the impacts of climate change will have to be made in every country and will involve literally millions of decision makers at every level of society.

The problem is that adaptation is the Cinderella of climate policy business — it has been neglected. Giving it importance is imperative.

For instance, developing countries like India are faced with the mammoth challenge of sustaining rapid economic growth while dealing with the global threat of climate change.
It is here that adaptation comes into the picture. Laws that minimise the cost of climate change and its impact on economies and government policy need to be implemented.
What also needs to be understood is that adaptation is not crisis management.

How should India tackle the issue?

At present our knowledge is rudimentary. We don’t know what adaptation strategies are compatible with economic development and poverty reduction objectives, which tools are the most effective, efficient and equitable, or, when and where to implement adaptation measures. The research gap is enormous. Researchers from around the world need to pool their resources and work together to help ensure that we can minimise the costs that climate change could impose on economic and social development. We aim to build good collaborative relations, develop mutual understanding and advance adaptation research.

So what is the government’s role in adaptation?

Corrective measures at the very basic level are required — the way we approach climate change. Experts hitherto, have adopted the ‘science first, predict and then act’ model, like the IPCC risk assessment, the Stern review, which discusses the effect of global warming on the world economy. Instead, governments need to embrace the ‘social science first approach’. India particularly needs to shift from the former to the latter approach. The role of the government needs to be development oriented where they are involved in direct adaptation by investing in public good, improving and developing technology options for risk and vulnerability reduction.

If we do so today, instead of waiting to act when disaster strikes, we will be in a better position to act against climate change. Also we need to avoid maladaptation — like building establishments in flood-prone areas.

In recent years, development programming has focused on micro-level capacity building — enabling people to cope better with the conditions of poverty in which they find themselves. Yet this micro-level focus comes at a cost, which is usually small scale and aimed at reducing poverty immediately.

The macro scale and the longer term are not prioritised. Adapting to climate change requires longer term planning and a wider perspective to avoid any effects of potential maladaptation. This gap should be addressed.

Public conviction about the threat of climate change has declined sharply, a British poll has found. Your reaction?

One of the most important aspects in adaptation is that we need to understand that individual perceptions lead to increase or decrease in costs of adapting to climate change.

If people are themselves not convinced, it will be difficult to ensure that the adaptation process runs in full steam. Here’s the way to go — create awareness, involve all stakeholders, both public and private to contribute.

Avoid a myopic view of the future and build options that are sustainable and reversible such as infrastructure, buildings that are resilient to climate change. Make people responsible. The private sector for example needs to be more sensitive.