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Wanted: politically acceptable adaptation strategies

28 October 2014

Researchers from various disciplines gather at the Oeschger Centre to consider adaptation strategies for Switzerland with regard to climate change. In a large Sinergia project, they are looking for economically and politically viable concepts which will promise protection from the impact of climate change.

Wanted: politically acceptable adaptation strategies

With this project, the Bernese climate economists bid farewell to interdisciplinary research that leads them down a one-way street. Until now, the cooperation between scientists and economists looked like this: climatologists and hydrologists provided data, which the economists used as input for their models. There was no real scientific exchange.

Things will be different with this project, CCAdapt, which stands for Climate Change Extremes and Adaptation Strategies considering Uncertainty and Federalism. “For the first time we’re doing science in a dialogue,” promises economics professor Gunter Stephan. “This is possible because the questioning in this project is very focused.” Stephan, the initiator and director of CCAdapt, emphasizes the network nature of this wide-ranging project. Communication flows in every direction. The eight participating CCAdapt research groups – five of them at the Oeschger Centre – are all in contact with each other. The political scientists will talk with the climate economists, hydrologists with public finance professionals and microeconomics specialists with climate risk experts.

Research that can be applied to policy

With a budget of CHF 1.1 million, the three-year Sinergia project is one of the largest funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. When describing the project’s goals, Gunter Stephan says, “We want to develop adaptation measures that find political acceptance.” CCAdapt aims to improve the scientific handling of adaptation measures while creating tools which could, for example, be used in regional planning.

“We’re not giving policy advice; however, we’re doing scientific research that could be incorporated into policy,” Gunter Stephan explains.

CCAdapt works in several stages. The starting point is the knowledge that someday, Switzerland will have to live with the consequences of climate change. No matter how tough it is, climate policy can’t prevent that change; at best it can slow it down. Adaptation measures are inevitable. But where, when and how should these measures be introduced?

Scientific ping-pong in a network

As a first step, the CCAdapt team plans to address these questions in a theoretical sense and clarify which of the many heterogeneous adaptation strategies would promise optimum results under the given and uncertain conditions. Then these theoretical concepts will be modified to allow for empirical analysis. The challenge? The equilibrium models used by the climate economists will have to be modified – so much so that they account for spatial particularities and the type of climatic threat.

In a fourth step, CCAdapt will look into the implementation of adaptation strategies, considering the federal structure of Switzerland. Gunter Stephan: “We want to clarify how the political process could be steered so that the strategies could actually be implemented.” And finally, the tools and methods developed by the team will be tested in a case study: adjusting to flooding – something that could become more common and severe in Switzerland as a result of climate change.

In concrete terms, the exchange between the four thematic research teams should be lively. Input from one group should raise questions within the other groups. Thanks to the network, the questions and answers should bounce back and forth in a form of scientific ping-pong.

When does flood protection make economic sense?

For adaptation measures, there’s a maximum financial expenditure that makes economic sense. The theory group will define this value for adapting to flooding and pass it on to the impact group, which will calculate to what extent this maximum value would correspond to a flood and how likely such an event would occur. In turn, this data would be used by the modelling group.

For years, many scientific disciplines have been addressing climate change and its consequences. But they have varying levels of knowledge. “The natural sciences have a relatively clear picture,” says Gunter Stephan, “However, the image of climate change from a social and economic perspective is still quite blurry.” There’s a reason why economists, for example, have only recently begun focusing on climate change. For a long time, people in politics only talked about tackling climate problems at their roots; for example, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody really considered the need to find solutions to the consequences of climate change. “In the area of adaptation, today we have a relatively high need for research,” says Gunter Stephan. “We want to help fill that knowledge gap with the CCAdapt project.”

University of Bern | Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research | Falkenplatz 16 | CH-3012 Bern | info@oeschger.unibe.ch | Tel +41 31 631 31 45 
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