As a professional field, climate change adaptation remained neglected, misunderstood and small until the early 2000s, when Lara Hansen, an ecotoxicologist by training, began working on the topic for the World Wildlife Fund . Hansen and his colleagues would joke that all the adaptation experts and researchers in the world “could fit in an elevator.” But soon, the field began to mushroom. For one thing, it had become clearer that emissions were not falling, especially after the George W. Bush administration announced in 2001 that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, another international agreement to push countries to control carbon atmospheric
The president’s inaction threw a wrench into international negotiations; partly as a result, when the United Nations forged another treaty called the Marrakesh Accords, they included much more on adaptation than in the past. If the United States continued to dump carbon into the sky without limits, then the entire world would have a lot more to adjust to.
But environmental groups were still often hesitant to enter the issue, a missed opportunity, Hansen thinks. “I’ve been saying for a long time that adaptation is the gateway to mitigation. Because once you see how big a problem it’s going to be for your community and how much you’re going to have to change your way of life,” he says, “suddenly it’s like, ‘Well, that’s bullshit.’ It would be a lot easier to stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”
In 2006, in a Florida hotel ballroom, he led a workshop for a couple of hundred people to talk about coral reef conservation, including commercial fishing companies and tourism companies that weren’t as familiar with the implications of climate change. That evening, at a local theater, the workshop organizers screened Al Gore’s climate documentary An inconvenient truth and released a video simulating future flooding in South Florida. “I zoomed in on the Florida Keys,” Hansen recalls, “and you could see that with two meters of sea level rise and a Category 1 hurricane storm surge, the only thing that was still standing in the Florida Keys was a couple of freeway bridges and the Key West Cemetery.” The audience asked him to play it three times. Afterward, Hansen said, he felt there was much more interest in mitigation efforts from people in the region.
In the years since, the ranks of adaptation experts have continued to grow exponentially. In 2008, Hansen co-founded an organization called EcoAdapt, a clearinghouse of adaptation reports and lessons, and a convener of experts from around the country. When the Obama administration required federal agencies to develop adaptation plans, it prompted other institutions to do the same. “It’s actually what probably got more state and local governments thinking about it than anything before,” Hansen says.
But adaptation work probably still suffers from some of the limitations it suffered at the beginning. Infrastructure, for example, is built on a slow timeline, and the delay in understanding and acceptance means planners haven’t necessarily caught up. Burton has noted how some of the UK’s railways were ill-suited to withstand the recent heatwave. “The railway lines were designed for what the climate has been for the last 50 years,” he lamented, not for what the climate is and will become.