The impact of climate change, particularly with respect to adaptation to a warming world, is often analysed on a sector-by-sector basis such as agriculture, forestry, or sea-level rise. But a new paper warns that this silo mentality is leading to mistakes, as working to combat negative impacts in one area can result in unintended consequences in other areas. The solution? Assessments that offer a more complete, cross-sector picture.
Researchers typically try to stick to the more isolated approach because to do other wise, involving many more variables, is incredibly complex and difficult. Indeed, the argument presented in the study, appearing this week in Nature Climate Change, is not really new, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change already emphasises this problem. But until now, a quantitative assessment of the scale of the uncertainty in single-sector studies has yet to be produced.
The European-Union-funded researchers looked at output from indicators covering agriculture, forestry, urban growth, land use, water resources, flooding and biodiversity, and a handful of other topics in single-sector models, and compared the output from the same sectors but appearing in integrated models. The comparison was also carried out across a variety of different climate and socio-economic scenarios.
The authors found discrepancies between the indicators were particularly noticeable for those involving food production and water use, because they are dramatically affected by changes in other sectors. Changes in water allocation schemes to deal with the effects of drought, for example, impacts the water that is available for agricultural irrigation, thereby lowering food production. The researchers also touched on adaptation measures to boost coastal defence against flooding that can in turn impact coastal habitats and biodiversity.
It’s a lesson a pair of PICS fellows working on adaptation research are already familiar with. Lia Chalifour, a biology researcher at the University of Victoria, is currently looking at seagrass ecosystems and their importance as salmon habitat, a key element of British Columbia’s fisheries. The data she is collecting will support decision-making around alteration of these seagrass habitats by the construction of dikes and levees built to withstand rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, Tugce Conger, a community planning researcher and PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, is investigating ‘green infrastructure’ such as dunes, marshes and seagrass as that can work as a sort of natural line of defence against coastal flooding.
“It is widely known that a protection action taken on one part of a coast will have a positive or negative impact on an adjacent part of the coast,” Conger says.
The region her research focuses on, the Salish Sea, is further complicated by two national boundaries and multiple municipal and county jurisdictions. “There is no integrated coastal management system or analysis; instead, different departments and researchers are looking separately at fisheries, ecosystems, tourism, natural resource extraction and agriculture, for example.”
“These human-instituted boundaries complicate our ability to act, but they also reduce our capacity to understand a complex system,” she says.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.