Academic Webinar: Rising to the Climate Challenge

Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Nick Oxford/Reuters

Professor, Sustainability and Development, and Climate and Energy, and Codirector, Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, School for Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan


Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Maria Carmen Lemos, professor of sustainability and development, and climate and energy, and codirector of Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments at University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, leads a conversation on environmental policy and climate adaptation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Erica. Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the CFR Winter/Spring 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us. Today's meeting is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We are delighted to have Maria Carmen Lemos with us today to talk about environmental policy and climate adaptation. We've shared her bio, but I will give you a few highlights. Dr. Lemos is professor of sustainability and development and climate and energy and codirector of Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. Her research interests are related to climate adaptation and the role of knowledge in building adaptive capacity. Dr. Lemos was a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment. She served on a number of U.S. National Research Council of the National Academies of Science committees, including Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change, America Climate Choice Science Panel, and the Board on Environmental Change and Society. Dr. Lemos, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought we could open with you talking a little bit about current efforts to adapt to climate change and how to further embed science within environmental decision-making.

LEMOS: Thank you so much, Irina. Thank you so much for the invitation. It's my pleasure to be here to talk to you, to learn from you, and to talk a little bit about climate adaptation. So I assume that all of you have heard the term climate adaptation, but I will talk a little bit about what that means. So adaptation is only necessary because we can't mitigate. Basically, if we could mitigate all the causes of climate change, decreasing our emissions of greenhouse gases, we would be much less focused on adaptation. So adaptation came later into this game of climate change response. A lot of the effort has been in mitigation. You see the new Biden agenda for climate is almost 100 percent focused on mitigation, as it should be. But what happens then is that there is this disconnect between mitigation and adaptation. So now there is good consensus that even if we accomplish a lot of our mitigation goals, there will be enough climate change to impact, to affect, and to shape different systems, ecosystems, human systems, and the built system to warrant some level of adaptation. The second thing is that there is a disconnect between mitigation and adaptation on who actually is responsible for it and who suffers the most for it. So although Western societies and big consumers, the rich, are mostly the ones who are consuming a lot of the carbon that we are putting in the atmosphere, most of the people who are affected by the negative impacts of climate change will not be even the same countries where a lot of this consumption is going on. And while mitigation is global, adaptation is local. But the distribution of resources between the globe and the local is very disconnected and there is a disproportionate impact on those that least cause the problem. So that is a policy issue. It's is a huge policy issue.

So what is adaptation? Adaptation is nothing new. We have been adapting all systems to our convenience forever since people are people. Since humans are humans, we have been adapting. And the way that we have been adapting for the most part is to increase our perception of well-being, of our wants. A lot of it is needs, but a lot of it is wants as well. I used to say, so I used to give these examples of blueberries. I love blueberries. I didn't see a blueberry until I was in my mid-20s when I came to the U.S. for a PhD. And the first time I had one I loved it. But then in three weeks they were gone because that was Boston, it was very cold, so there were no blueberries. So I found out that there were frozen blueberries. They were not the same thing. But I started eating frozen blueberries because they were there. Now I can buy blueberries that are organic, non-organic, biologic, non-biologic, anytime of the year nonstop. That's a tremendous adaptation. We don't think about that. But that's an adaptation for my pleasure that happens at tremendous costs—energy costs, human costs, environmental costs, use of water, all of those things.

So we are actually excellent at adapting. But we have adapted for the sort of reasons, I don't want to say wrong reasons, but we have adapted for reasons that now are coming back to hurt us because of the way that we have used the environment and the systems around us. So adaptation is a drag because adaptation is all about telling people what they should not do. They should consume less. They should be less warm in their houses. They should travel less. They should do all of those things that we aspire to do as human beings. And contrary to mitigation that has some avenues into money making, the Green New Deal is all about this, how we can actually have your cake and eat it too. Adaptation is all about costs. So it's politically very unpalatable. And also complicated because it's very local, very contextual. So there isn't one single thing that you can do to improve adaptation all around the world. Every adaptation will be a function of how much climate change you have, how exposed you are to that climate change, and how sensitive you are to that climate change. If you're an older person, you might not be so exposed to drought, but you may be exposed to heat events if you don't have air conditioning in your house. And if you're older, you're more exposed than somebody who is younger. But if you're richer, you are going to be less exposed as somebody who's poorer for the most part. So we know those things, but it's very contextual and it's contextual to the impact.

What are the main impacts that we are supposed to be adapting to? Most of it is related to weather and climate change. So hurricanes, extreme events, such as extreme heat or extreme storms, drought, which is, of course, the low onset impact that takes years sometimes to recover from and actually kills the most people around the world but kills them so slowly that we don't look at it in the same way that we look at a hurricane, for instance, that hits very fast, kills a lot of people, and then everybody knows about it. We are also adapting to sea-level rise. And now we have all these other things that are happening that may be connected to climate change, which also have negative impacts. So we have fires everywhere now, severe fires. We also have ecosystem loss, loss of species, change in the pattern of species, threats to long-term survival of certain plants and vegetables. We do have problems in terms of things like harmful algal blooms that may be connected to climate change. So we have all those new things that we are discovering every day that are negative impacts on what we do.

One of the main things about climate change is to have the capacity to do something about it. There are many kinds of adaptations. There is preemptive adaptation. There is autonomous adaptation that you just do. There is barely coping with whatever comes your way. And there is the ultimate bad deal, which is maladaptation. So, when you don't adapt and you continue to suffer from those impacts over and over again. But even if you do the best of adaptations, which is the preemptive adaptation, it is still a cost. There is something that we call in this field that is avoided costs. How can you actually avoid paying much more in the future for something that you were pretty convinced it's going to happen and that it's going to cost much less if you do it now rather than wait twenty years? So infrastructure is a very good example. Should we be retrofitting our infrastructure right now or should we wait for it to crumble and then pay much more for it? But even that is hard to do. It's hard to do economically. It's hard to do politically. Think about how many things in your life you have, big expenses that you have postponed because you always think something will come up that will bail out of that or you just don't want to wait, spend that money at that moment, and we are bad at that as a society. We are usually something that is a term that we call contempo-centric. So we think about us now in the present much more than we think about nonhumans or that we also think about people in the future that are going to be living with the consequences of what we do. So adaptation in that sense is a matter of having something that we call adaptive capacity. If I have time, I will tell you a story to give you an idea of what adaptive capacity is. It's a little bit like the blueberry story, I'll let you know.

FASKIANOS: You have about five minutes, Maria.

LEMOS: Great. So one of my stops in the U.S., after I came from Brazil, was in Arizona. And I come from a place in Brazil, which is in the southeast, close to Rio, but in the mountains where it's tropical weather. It rains absolutely every day. And one of the things that we did when I was growing up was I always carried an umbrella. It was like an appendage. It's part of your arm, you always carry an umbrella. When I moved to Boston, it was okay, the umbrella had some utility. But when I moved to Arizona, the umbrella had no utility. So I moved the umbrella from my knapsack to my car, because I still could not completely let go of the umbrella. And so what was my thinking? My thinking was that it never rains in Arizona, to be completely honest, but if it rains one day, I will be protected. I'll have the capacity. So I will have adaptive capacity to respond to that rain, to that event. So the first and only time that it rained in Arizona while I was there, I was super happy because I said, "Okay, I have the capacity." When I opened the umbrella, which had been in my car for years in extreme heat and sun, the umbrella came apart. I had zero capacity. That's the story of adaptive capacity. You always think that you have it, but it has to be exactly there when you need it. And you never know if you really have it. So adaptive capacity are all the resources that people, governments, households, communities have to protect themselves from the impacts of climate change. Building it is a big deal and that's the research I do. I do research on understanding what are the best capacities for any given, not any, but many given situations. I particularly look at how climate information or science in general can help build different systems of adaptive capacity, but I focus a lot on governments, mid-level governments, cities, for the most part, or individuals such as farmers, water managers, and fisherman who can use climate information and to prepare and sometimes to respond to climate change. So that's what I had to say.

FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Maria. Let's go now to all of you for your questions. You can click on the "raise hand" at the bottom of your screen or if you're on a tablet click on the "more" button, you can raise your hand there. And if you'd like you can also type your question in the Q&A box. So I'm going to first take a question from Langdon Clough, who is a senior lecturer of environmental science at Northeastern University and would like you to speak to the relationship between local, regional, and international policy adaptation. Which you see as being the most important driver?

LEMOS: So I don't think that there is a global adaptation policy. There are many adaptation things that people are doing that both disseminate and also—one of the main drivers of adaptation action is actually understanding what other people are doing and then you do it as well. I'm going to give you an example in the U.S. So in the U.S. we don't have a national adaptation law or regulation. What we have is a lot of regulations that have bearing on adaptation. So a lot of the people, a lot of the systems that are subscale, meaning cities and a state, actually complain tremendously that there has been—I hope it's going to change—there has been very little federal incentive for adaptation. There is much more for mitigation and less for adaptation. So a lot of the things that are happening on the ground, for instance, at the municipal level, are initiatives and responses that are contextualized but can actually learn a lot from other cities or the possibilities there are. So a lot of the adaptation action at this point is very experimental at that level. So I'll give you an example. A lot of cities now are having climate plans or adaptation plans or resilience plans, and they all have some level of understanding that cities have to adapt. But usually there is no money behind that and that is a big constraint. But there are many policies at the federal level that influence what they have to do at the local level. So hazard plans are a good example of that. So everybody has to have a hazard plan. So there is a move now for imbuing or infusing hazard plans from climate with climate information so that they are better informed than just answering to what's happening right now. So this is one way in which adaptation propagates across scales. I'm not sure if I answered—did I answer the question well?

FASKIANOS: You did. Let's go to a raised hand, Catherine Zeman. And if you can unmute yourself and give us your affiliation that would be terrific.

Q: Yes, thank you. Dr. Catherine Zeman, I'm a professor at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. And I appreciate your presentation so far and I really enjoyed your example of a multisystem failure with the umbrella and then the monsoons in Arizona. And I'm wondering—I often encounter maybe an inability to comprehend system failures and interactions of system failures, and even right now I'm not sure we do that well with the biogeochemical cycles that are interacting like carbon, nitrogen, etcetera. What can we do to increase public recognition of multisystems issues and is this a K-12 issue or what can be done in your opinion? Thank you.

LEMOS: In my opinion, it's everybody's issue. I think that this past year has been a tremendous wake-up call because even in the narrow area of response, you're responding to disaster. And it's not narrow, but I mean, in relation to the chemical or other ecosystems and other systems that are involved in this. It was amazing to us how ill-prepared we were to deal with compounding events that were not thought of in the same breath. So for instance, I think that the fact that we had a horrible hurricane season on the U.S. Gulf while we were under the COVID epidemic and people are scrambling even to understand what to do with those things. And the same thing with fires in California. It was an amazing wake-up call how health, climate, poverty, race, issues of different capacities come together in a pretty disastrous way if we are not thinking of them all in the same frame of mind or try to model the overlaps between them at the same time that we are trying to understand them separately. So I do think from the public point of view, it's harder because the way that the research goes in this, it's pretty, I would say, it's not very well communicated. And that is the experience that I have in my own field. So one of the things that we are trying to do at GLISA, for instance, which is this center funded by NOAA that I am the codirector of, is that we are trying to come up with participatory modeling, multistressors, participatory modeling that is trying to provide visual depictions of different choices that you can make through different systems and look at them through simulations through time. But it is in its infancy. But in my mind, I think that if the public had an idea of how an idea of how things are affecting each other, it would go a big way to help us, as a society, to understand that we have to look at those things as a multistressor state that needs solutions that will address at that level, not just climate change or health. There are new emerging frames that I think are trying to do that like planetary health, it's a big frame and it's an interesting one. But we still need to be better as scientists on understanding what might be ways to communicate that in a friendly, not scary, in a friendly way that actually says, "Okay, there is a solution for that." We do, for instance, those exercises that we are hoping that we can use crowdsourcing in the future to really scale them up. And we make sure that even when you are looking at compounding factors, that we also are looking toward what are the opportunities to do better if we understand how those issues feedback on each other as well.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the next question, a written question, from Mahesh Raisninghani, who is a professor at Texas Woman's University: "If you were an advisor to the Biden administration, what would you suggest they do differently to ensure that the other countries do their part, both financially and administratively, of the respective country for preemptive adaptation based on hard lessons learned from the past for several countries committed to certain actions but did not follow through?"

LEMOS: So this is a little bit different from mitigation because in mitigation you can have global targets that you can actually assign to different sectors and certain industries, certain countries, and you say, "Okay, do your part." In adaptation, there is no global connection the same way. So countries are not failing to do things in relation to adaptation, but they are, okay, so let me put it this way. They are not failing as part of a trade-off between what other countries are doing. For the most part, countries just suffer. So if you think about less developed or lower-income economies or even mid-income economies, they have no resources to respond or to prevent. So what we need is the transfer of resources. So there is a global Adaptation Fund, which is administered by the Global Environmental Fund through the World Bank. Many developed countries have made many pledges to it through the years and the pledges never materialized. So this is a collective obligation of the West to, I don't want to use a negative term, to actually, it's not repair or compensate, but act morally to understand that the responsibility of climate change also has to come with the responsibility of contributing to adaptation in other countries. So if your question is how we hold ourselves responsible for that, I think we should, but as I was saying, it's so complicated politically. And then we have different administrations that will do different things. I think the Biden administration, I haven't read anything, any commitment towards the Adaptation Fund. I have heard a lot of good things that are happening in mitigation, and my hope is that it will get there. Because we know that there is humanitarian and moral issues but there are also practical issues like security and migration and all of those things that are likely to happen because of climate change that we want to act sooner than later to preempt the most egregious impact.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. I'm going to go next to Joshua Flickinger. If you can unmute yourself.

Q: Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: We can. Give us your institution too.

Q: Joshua Flickinger, I'm from the Ohio University, I'm a student there. And my question is as the United States and other global powers experience a push for radically reducing their carbon dependence, what is your opinion on the potential for a new generation of nuclear reactors to help make up the difference in the energy supply? Nuclear does have a bad reputation among the United States' public, and it's become popularly associated with big disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. But even with the drawbacks, it possesses some advantages with efficiency over some of the other green energy solutions. And France has relied increasingly and primarily on it now for decades and they've been able to reduce their carbon footprint. So my question is, with the recent uptick in activity around it, what do you see as its future potential for being one of those adaptive technologies we can employ?

LEMOS: So Josh. This is completely out of my research wheelhouse. I have personal opinions as a citizen. And I know of some literature that says, that advocates that nuclear will have to be part of the energy matrix if we want really to mitigate climate change. Personally, I, well, how can I say that? I think I grew up in a generation where nuclear power was not favored. I would put it that way. So it relates to adaptation in a somewhat indirect way because we need to mitigate to be able to adapt. And that may be one way to do it. I have been in panels with other presenters that are arguing that is not only safer today, but there is this more distributed model of nuclear power that may be an essential part of that matrix. But I'll leave it at that. I don't know if I'm comfortable saying any more about it because I don't know enough about it.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. And Maria, we have a question from John Mueller: "Can you talk about the comparative costs of mitigation and adaptation? And could adaptation alone solve the problem? And why is adaptation so often ignored?"

LEMOS: Okay, so I can't put a dollar sign on it. There are many numbers that are out there. I'm trying to remember a specific one that I could tell you. For instance, at one point many years ago there was this idea that if they adapt the global Adaptation Fund, which is part of the UNFCCC, if there were expenditures of around $50 billion a year, actually, we could adapt at a much healthier rate than we are likely to be in the future because we have done so little about it. But in socially constructing both of them there is this disconnect that I talked a little bit before, in which adaptation is sunken costs and in mitigation there is some level of a positive frame because it's basically pollution. So you would be killing two birds with one stone—you would decrease pollution and you also provide some economic opportunity for a new energy matrix that would be better for the environment and would control or at least would curb some or prevent some of the most egregious impacts of climate change if we go business as usual and we don't do anything. So the problem with adaptation is then trying to find frames that are somewhat positive.

One that is becoming popular is this idea of co-benefits. So can you do things that are good both for mitigation and adaptation? They are expensive, but they are out there. So green infrastructure is a very good example of this. If you have more urban forestry, if you have carbon sinks in cities because of vegetation or because of parks or floatable adaptive parks like they do in the Netherlands, for instance, you could have both. There is also this idea of a climate resilient pathway that units like cities can adopt by looking for policies where you can have sustainability, justice, and adaptation at the same time. So you have those three steps. So if you vet all your policies towards those three goals, you're going to have a better and more transformational pathway that would not only allow you to adapt better, but that adaptation is sustainable and just and equitable, for instance. So there are all these new frames that are emerging in which you try to—adaptation is costly, that's unavoidable—but that you try to understand how to use the agent of adaptation to transform things that need transforming anyways. And again, I go back to this compounding year that we had, in which in each one of those extreme events or in the pandemic, there is now research emerging that minorities, the poor in ecosystems suffer disproportionately because of it. So we know that there is something intrinsically structural that needs to be addressed beyond our energy matrix. And that structural issue can be spearheaded, again, by adaptation, let's put it this way, if more and more people are affected by it.

FASKIANOS: So Elizabeth Alfreno from Ohio University asked a question: "Since there's no guidebook on this topic for how to properly switch from our current situation to a cleaner, more eco-friendly outlook, what is the best way to complete this task realistically?" And you started to get at this: "Do you think the pandemic has been helpful or harmful in this process? It certainly has shed a lot of light on the inequities."

LEMOS: It has put a lot of things on this plotline. I hate to say that there is a silver lining because I don't think it's a tenable—I don't think it's a tenable argument to say that it did. But it did show a lot of, led to a lot of things there that, to a certain extent, it's not worth the cost. I'll be completely honest. So don't get me wrong to think that it was a good thing. But it happened and it may cause us to think, to reflect better where we are going. If this is something that is likely to happen, more frequently, like there is in some conversations, we have to understand how to better respond to it. And adaptation is in that conversation. Climate change is in that conversation, because there are similarities between them in the sense that it can really disrupt livelihoods, massively. But because climate change is disproportionate—affecting people who have less political voice, less economic power, less social capital—I think that the pandemic by being so, I would say, indiscriminate in the way that it affects people, although, some people are much worse affected than others, I think it has helped us to think how we need to respond better, how we need to be more conscientious about those inequalities and those disparities that makes such a big difference. So-called benefits, thinking about transformational things that can improve livelihoods and improve ecosystems and improve the way that we treat the world around us are all positive ways of thinking about this. As always, they are easier said than done. It fills my heart with joy when I see a lot of the youth movement and the way the young people in the U.S. are becoming so much more connected with both the structural issues of inequality, but also with the idea that they are the guardians and the stewards of their own future and they're pushing us to do better. So I think that there are positive things happening and maybe this crisis has catalyzed a lot of this.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Daniel Gorman, who has his hand raised.

Q: Hi, Dan Gorman, PhD student in history, University of Rochester. I was curious if you could speak a little bit to changing religious attitudes in regard to climate change, how you see that either helping or hindering the movement to address climate change.

LEMOS: So again, a little bit out of my wheelhouse. But I'll tell you what I think about this. So there is a lot of thinking on how to reconcile cultural and social beliefs and climate change in a positive way so that we can actually move action forward. I think behavioral change is very hard to do. I have never read a paper or written a paper where we have behavioral change in which we don't have this disclaimer. It's very hard to change. So I'll give you an example that may be the best way that I can tell you about this. So there is a famous climate scientist from Texas who happens also to be somebody of deep faith. And every time that she speaks, she makes those connections. I admire her tremendously. And I know for a fact that she has influence to bring those two things together and that religious beliefs are not incompatible with believing in climate change and also doing something about climate change. So I think that when it comes from a place in which I could not do that personally, but I do think that there are mechanisms and there are messages that we can push that will understand that. On the other hand, I'll tell you, I think the biggest disfavor that we do in general in terms of climate denialism—not climate skepticism. I think climate skepticism to be honest with you, I think that there is still room to address in different ways—but climate denialism, I think that the worst thing that we can do is to dismiss it, to dismiss it as something that we should not pay attention or to condescendingly talk about it, because I do think that in order to change people's minds, you'll have to talk to them from a place of respect. And if there is something that we've learned in the last two months is that dismissing those who think very different from us is not getting us very far. So I do think we have a little bit of a responsibility there.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going go next to Stephen Kass, who has raised his hand, also written his question, but why don't you just ask it yourself? So unmute yourself, please.

Q: Thank you. I appreciate your conversation very much today. The issue of adaptation in developing countries, which you address, is very challenging not because the countries don't know what to do, but because they don't have the resources to do it. As you said, countries that do have the resources are not appropriating sufficient monies to do that, either through the Adaptation Fund or bilaterally. Some years ago, the New York City Bar Association proposed an international financial transaction tax on all transfers of funds around the world, which help of course drive the development that's causing so much impact, with the proceeds from that tax to be devoted to climate adaptation in developing countries, mitigating the need for annual appropriations from other countries, what do you think of that idea? Would you support it?

LEMOS: So I don't know enough about the idea but from your description, of course, I support it. I think that we need to channel money. Okay, so another thing that I'll tell you. I have done some research on this on Brazil and I have a student who is now doing some research on Africa. So there is tremendous opportunity for us to reset what is understood as aid, this whole frame of aid. So if there is a distribution of responsibility in the reconstruction of the idea that responsibility is not aid, but it's really stepping to the plate to fix a situation in which people are suffering tremendously that might not have the same responsibility than the West or developed countries, I think that any scheme that actually recognizes that should be incentivized. And I know that there is a lot of controversy on using words like reparation or transfer. But what countries in lower-income economies need is well thought of schemes that will actually increase the energy on things that are—some of them that are very good that already on the ground—but also, understanding that you have to deal with those problems in the context where they are happening.

So for instance, I'll give you an example. For many years I had this study in northeast Brazil with small, rainfed farmers—very, very poor. A dollar a day, usually a lot of the households. And then in the mid-1990s, late 1990s, and mid-2000s, Brazil had enacted this tremendous, amazing, nationwide anti-poverty program called the Zero Hunger. As a result of that, the adaptive capacity of households to resist drought increased tremendously. So, there was a huge reduction of famine. There was a lot of effort to decrease the displacement of people moving to cities because they had no livelihood in rural areas anymore. However, the problem was that even when you have policies like that, the deepest level of capacity will come through education, through human capital, because the fact of the matter is that people practice rainfed agriculture in semi-arid areas a lot of times because they don't have another choice. So, if that activity isn't sustainable long term because drought is going to become more severe and last longer, we have to think what is the transition out of that. However, a lot of the financing for adaptation around the world is actually focusing on much more immediate responses, not really investing in this long transition from a non-resilient to a more resilient state that will have to be thought about in those contexts but also in the context of time and what it would mean for people to get out of that trap—what we call poverty trap, a rigidity trap—because they survive one drought, they barely do, they cope, the next drought they are a little bit worse, and if that situation continues to happen you need pretty deep transformation on that livelihood and not just irrigation or more technical adaptations to achieve that. So both things are necessary. They have to be there. But to go back—I digressed, stepped a little bit on my soapbox—but to understand what is the best way to channel those resources, we have to have deep knowledge of what's happening in those places and how we can piggyback or incentivize things that are already happening that are positive and, of course, combat what is not positive. I'm sorry, I don't know if—I actually am in favor of your scheme. I'm in favor of any scheme that actually transfers funds and reframes this idea that this is aid.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We are going to go next to Ed Webb, who is an assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College: "Internationally adaptation might present chances for competition, e.g., scramble for Arctic resources, and cooperation, the Great Green Wall across the southern side of the Sahara. Is it clear whether we are seeing more competition or more cooperation in this domain?"

LEMOS: Okay, so can you again say the beginning of the question?

FASKIANOS: Sure. Adaptation might present chances for competition and cooperation. So what are we seeing? Are we seeing more competition for resources, as in the Arctic, or more cooperation, the Great Green Wall across the southern side of the Sahara?

LEMOS: So I can't tell you in a deterministic way, what's happening. We have examples of cooperation and we have examples of competition. So in water, there is huge literature that actually is trying now to understand what's happening across different adaptive responses in terms of competition and cooperation. So I'll tell you what I know a little bit better in terms of what may be happening. So in the Great Lakes, where I do a lot of my research as well, we have some good evidence that cities are a little bit of frenemies. So I had a PhD student, who is now an assistant professor, named Scott Kalafatis. He did research among cities in the Great Lakes, dozens of cities, and one of the things that he found is that cities competed with each other but that competition actually has positive outcomes because they are doing good things while they are competing. And they are cooperating all the time as well. So I think this push and pull of cooperation and competition is happening in many different schemes about adaptation, because you always want to understand what other people are doing that has been tested, that it is better understood, that responses are robust, that you may consider in your own system, and that is where you cooperate. At the same time, so in the case of cities, they want to attract business. They want to attract people. They want their bonds to have higher value. So, they are competing at the same time that they are doing this. But overall if competition brings everybody up, then it's a positive thing. Now, if we are talking about resources, if there is competition for resources, so, what I know from the adaptation financing system overall is that countries, at least developed countries, which is the way that they call it, are entitled, for instance, to write proposals to the Adaptation Fund, NAPAs, that will finance or fund adaptive responses. So there is some emerging literature that is evaluating that. Some of it has been positive and some of it has been negative. I'm an optimist. I think that just the fact that it's adaptation and not financial aid or not development aid, I think that it has already spurred a bigger, and I would say, more concerted effort to deal with issues of equity in distributive justice on those projects more than in the past.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let's go next to Rebecca Evans, who has her hand raised.

Q: Hi, I'm a student of Professor Evans actually. My name is Olivia. I'm a student at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. I have two questions. The first one is, are some policies or some, like, agendas that you would like to see younger people or a broader push for in the public for that adaptation effort? And then the second part was, what do you believe is the role of international bodies such as the United Nations in adaptation efforts globally?

LEMOS: Okay, so I'll start with the second one because it's easier and shorter. So pretty much what's happening that is coordinated across the globe on adaptation is happening linked to the United Nations. So the UNFCCC, the Adaptation Fund, all of those are happening under those umbrellas, global negotiations. About youth movement and what can be done, I think that it's amazing to me what's been happening in this globalization of climate change response in the youth movement—the Sunrise Movement in the U.S., the Green New Deal—the really in-your-face questioning what the future is going to be. I think that is tremendously positive. I do think that even other emerging social movements that are espousing some of those causes that matter in our life, Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, all the social energy that is happening, that is telling us we have to change some of the really deep structural issues that are affecting us this day, I think that's a very, very positive energy. I don't remember a time that I have been so optimistic about the future of climate response like the past three or four years because I do think that there is a very positive energy. I'll have to say something else as well. And this is completely anecdotal because I've never done any research on this and I don't know, but I do also feel for my students, from the generations that are coming through my school, which is a professional school for environment and sustainability, through my son, I feel a deep concern about the future that is actually informing practice both in terms of consumption, frugality, thinking about what adaptations that we do routinely are contributing to the problem rather than solving it. I'm optimistic, I think that there is a good positive thing, okay, in the middle of the pandemic this sounds too pollyannish, but I do think that there is positive energy going around and a lot of it is coming from young people.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the next question from Steven Elliot-Gower, who is at Georgia College: "Could you tell us a little about China's sponge cities?"

LEMOS: China’s what?

FASKIANOS: China's sponge cities?

LEMOS: I don't know what that is. I'm sorry. I would like to hear from him what that is.

FASKIANOS: Steven, do you want to unmute yourself and elaborate?

Q: Sure. Hello, I've really enjoyed the conversation today. Yes, I was reading something a few months ago about these sponge cities in China. And these are cities, which are newly developed, newly designed, and they include many of the sorts of things that you were talking about earlier—wetlands, parks—but it's a total, sort of, holistic design of a city, which is designed to adapt to climate change.

LEMOS: All right, so I knew of some of this. I was on a committee a long time ago with somebody who was working on those. They called them zero-carbon cities at that point. And they may be similar to what you were talking about. I think any experiment that shows us, in practice, that there is a future that can be better is a valid one. I think the problem is how to scale up those experiments and how to counterbalance something that this is possible with the fact that carbon emissions are still going up tremendously all around the world. I know of some examples of radical transformations or extreme technology, in which people are trying to understand what is possible at this point. And I think that all is absolutely valid. I think the one risk, of course, that a lot of people see on these radical transformations is whether they will actually curb behavior or they will actually incentivize behavior because now we know that we can do it with less emissions, for instance. So I think this is an outstanding question on how to incentivize behaviors without actually giving people more incentive to consume more carbon now that we are actually sequestering more of it. But the other thing to think about this is that there is still tremendous inequality between the way that we consume carbon all around the world. So what a lovely idea it would be that when we think that how countries that are still growing tremendously and that are still growing cities could actually partake of that technology in the future, for instance, to rebalance a little bit the way that consumption is distributed in the word.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Noorah Alhasan.

Q: Hi, Noorah Alhasan, PhD student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. You briefly talked about adaptive capacity, which is really cool because that's what I'm working on right now. So I want to know what your thoughts are on how the concept is operationalized in scholarly research, especially in terms of measurements and how that in the long term effects probably climate financing, because, yes, I'm a little bit confused and there's a lot of stuff being measured all over the place.

LEMOS: If you want to email me, I can give you at least one reference that I think is doing a great job in answering your question from this woman called A.R. Siders from the University of Delaware. We did a recent very good review of the literature. What I can tell you is that it's a confusing field because it's trying to do things that are anathema to science just to generalize about science because we were trying to figure out if there are capitals that we can model, including quantitatively, that will actually yield on the other side a dimension that will say, okay, this is better than that. On the other hand, there is this huge literature of people doing research, like I did in northeast Brazil or in some African countries or Southeast Asia, in which when you actually look on the ground how those capitals are interacting with each other, it's very hard to just say that you can model them and still be relevant in terms of what is happening on the ground. So I think that the field is going through growing pains and it's going also in many push and pulls if we should be measuring adaptive capacity very contextually in a situated way or if we should be thinking about, okay, can we have preponderance of evidence of something that worked for the most part. The easy way of thinking about this is that can we say that if everybody has more money they are better off? I would say that is a very good hypothesis. They might be. But there are actually tons of examples that money was not the main driver of capacity to resist some different kinds of impact. So my take is that there is actually not a trade-off, but there is a combination of things that I call generic capacities—money, people, education, security, politics, social capital, and natural capital—which are the big five, and what I call specific capacities that are very much a function of context rather than this big bucket of assets that are fungible and that are distributed in a much broader geography or sector. I don't know if I helped you at all. The only thing that I can say is that I have published a lot in this field and I can only sympathize. Welcome to the club because it is an area where I think there is tremendous need for research, but it does go a little bit back and forth on if we can think about determinants or if it's contextual and we have to understand them in a much more granular way in different contexts.

FASKIANOS: So the last question I'm going to take from Mackenzie Kreit. She's a student at the University of Florida. And we also had another student at Skidmore who asked a similar question about "what role do you believe big business can play in adaptation?" And this overlaps with the question from Olivia Parker at Skidmore College: "Global corporations bear a lot of responsibility for climate effects. What's the role of transnational corporations in terms of adaptation?" So this will have to be the last one, and it’s a big one.

LEMOS: It should be playing a huge role. I think that there is a lot of emerging issues and frames now that are telling business that they should be worried about this as well, because eventually it will, not eventually, it's already disrupting a lot of their business as well. So, one easy one is to look at the amount of very expensive disasters and events that we had this year that has disrupted business tremendously. So I think that there are a lot of consultant firms, there is a lot of business in the adaptation service area that is starting to emerge already thinking that there will be a market for them to work with other business to see how they can protect themselves from potential impacts. Morally, they should just be contributing to the needs that are out there in terms of their contribution to climate change and how much we need to compensate those suffering from climate change. That's a little bit harder proposition because we know that business is not great on that. But I do think that there is a new understanding that climate change is not going to be good to anybody and eventually, that could mean financial losses that are big enough to spur action on that as well.

FASKIANOS: But Maria, do you think that now with this new generation of taking on this issue of climate change that there will be more demands as employees for big businesses that this is part of their corporate social responsibility?

LEMOS: Oh, absolutely. So my school, for instance, has a dual degree with the business school, which is our most popular specialization. It's very competitive and people get jobs very, very easily, very, very fast. And well-paid jobs. So I think that there is a huge market for that and I do also think more and more of the business world is understanding that sustainability and development sustainability to adaptation is going to be big business. And so, yes, if you're looking for a change in profession, it's absolutely an area that I think is growing very fast.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. Well, thank you very much. Thank you, Maria Carmen Lemos, for this great hour. And I apologize we had over ten questions still left in the Q&A box but I couldn't get to them all—my apologies. But we appreciate your being with us today.

LEMOS: Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: And for all of you, our next webinar will be on Wednesday, February 24, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. F. Gregory Gause, chair, professor, and head of the Department of International Affairs at Texas A&M's Bush School Government and Public Service will talk about America's role in the Middle East. In the meantime, I encourage you to follow us @CFR_Academic on Twitter and visit CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for new research and analysis on these issues. So thank you all. Thank you, Maria. Stay well and stay safe.


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