Wanted: solution space for climate adaptation

Building villages in higher-lying areas will be more sustainable in the long term. Photo: Shutterstock

Policymaking is all about looking ahead. Especially when the policies involve the consequences of climate change and how we can prepare for them. WUR policy scientist Robbert Biesbroek is helping governments to get a better understanding of this issue and make better long-term decisions. He is doing so by investigating how they could create more room for manoeuvre administratively to allow a wider range of solutions.

Forest fires, floods, heatwaves, droughts or extreme downpours: local, regional and national natural disasters are increasing in frequency throughout the world. And climate change is a driving force behind these disasters. Numerous solutions could potentially help us adapt to the consequences of climate change and be better equipped to cope with such disasters. For example, if a particular area becomes hotter and drier, the government can steer towards more efficient water consumption, improved water storage and cooler buildings and cities. The government can also opt to relocate the cultivation of crops that require a lot of water and replace them with other crops.

Which of these solutions are available in practice depends on their technical, financial, legal, political and societal feasibility. Is there money for the solution, do the legislation and regulations allow it, and is there broad support among politicians and society at large? If many options are available, policy scientist Robbert Biesbroek calls this a large ‘solution space’.

Is there money for climate solutions, do the legislation and regulations allow them, and is there broad support

The rising temperatures cause draughts and wildfires around the globe. Photo: Shutterstock

The Wageningen University & Research associate professor studies the solution space for climate adaptation at the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK). And in his free time, he is a coordinating lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “It is important for governments to be able to see what is possible at present, where they need to make adjustments and what paths they can take to have more and better solutions available in the longer term. Only then can they develop a long-term policy and demonstrate political leadership”, emphasizes Biesbroek.

The next hundred years

“Proactive steering is required to expand the solution space.” Governments can do this by amending legislation and regulations, earmarking funds or running information campaigns. But some processes cannot be controlled. “What do you do if public opinion changes and people become tired of all that climate hype? Or if costs have to be cut? Or if a political party with very different views comes to power?”

However, there are strategies for embedding a focus on a topic in legislation and regulations, and safeguarding it for the longer term. A good example is the Dutch Delta Plan, which is aimed at keeping the Netherlands safe from flooding and climate-proof, both now and in the long term. The Delta Act regulates the development and implementation of plans and the Delta Fund provides the financing. “This lets you institutionalize the solution space and preserve it for the longer term so that it is not at the mercy of the latest hype.”

The Dutch floodplains serve as an extra buffer during flooding. Photo: Bennekom / Shutterstock

We will have to take a lot of decisions in the next while to prepare for the coming hundred years, says Biesbroek. With complex issues like climate change, it is particularly important that governments identify the problems they could encounter and determine what adaptations are needed to cope with these problems.

Growing sense of urgency

The challenge presented by climate change is to decide whether we need to take a fundamentally different approach to things, says Biesbroek. In the case of the Netherlands, perhaps we should stop putting up buildings in low-lying areas and floodplains. “But is there the support for this? Perhaps people prefer to live near large cities and are willing to accept the associated risks”, suggests the policy scientist. Furthermore, some solutions only work if global warming remains limited. “You can raise dykes to reduce the risk of flooding but if sea levels eventually rise by two to four metres, you may need to consider other options. You could for example consider abandoning the Randstad metropolitan area in the west and building cities in higher-lying areas.”

Proactive steering by governments is needed to expand the solution space. But not all processes can be controlled

The ‘climate crisis’ is now making the headlines and being taken seriously, receiving considerable attention from politicians and society at large. “There are always opposing forces, but broadly speaking the sense of urgency is growing. That is having a really positive effect on the solution space, both nationally and internationally.”

Longer pathway of research

One problem limiting the solution space is the available funding for climate adaptation. “Many countries are willing in principle to take action, but it costs a lot of money, which they often don’t have.” The financing of solutions is a recurring issue that vulnerable countries repeatedly place on the international agenda. But there are no easy options. “The international mobilization of money for adaptation purposes is tricky, in particular for geopolitical reasons. But rich countries such as the Netherlands also have only limited funds available for adaptation and this is often seen as a key obstacle to accelerating the pace of adaptation.”

When the issues are complex, governments need to know what problems they could encounter

Heavy rain has far-reaching consequences for the population and nature. Photo: Ceri Breeze / Shutterstock

Even so, Biesbroek hopes to focus the attention of politicians, civil servants and the ministries on the future by pointing to the importance of the solution space and setting out its implications for climate adaptation. “If you look at the timelines of various options, you can also avoid blocking future options.” If you build on the floodplains, for instance, it means you will no longer be able to use that area as an extra buffer during flooding. Biesbroek says the investigation into the solution space for climate adaptation has only just begun. “It is the start of a longer pathway of research. We link insights from public policy studies with an understanding of climate models and climate effects to analyse complex issues and see what we could do differently or better. We need to take this step to help governments see how they can use the principles to guide them in daily practice.”

Robbert Biesbroek is selected as Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC report on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation.


Read the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report

Visit the IPCC website

Read more about Robbert Biesbroek’s research

Read more about the research of the Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK)

Any questions about this topic? Ask our expert

Robbert Biesbroek PhD Associate professor of Public Administration and Policy

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