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Variability or Change?

For years, first scientists, then the media and politicians debated whether the observed global warming trend is due to natural variability or human-induced changes in the climate system. Fortunately, this debate has now been mostly put to rest with the release of the fourth assessment of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year, which stated: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal….(and) most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”

However, the variability vs. change discussion is now taking on a new life. This time the debate is not focused on attributing a cause to global warming but rather what to do about adapting to it impacts. Is improving management to current climate variability – an adaptation strategy? Or is climate adaptation more about developing strategies to manage the severe climate change impacts projected for 20-50 years in the future?

Questions such as these arose in a recent workshop that sponsored in Kenya on climate and health. "Are we talking about climate variability or climate change?" participants would ask during working groups focused on identifying strategies for reducing vulnerability to the emergence and spread of climate-sensitive diseases.

The crux of the variability vs. change discussion began when Phil Thornton from ILRI presented an overview of the state of the science on climate projections which highlighted the huge uncertainty in projections from the Global Climate Models (GCMs) out toward the middle and end of century. Then Caroline Kisia, executive director of Action Africa Help International (AAHI) and a medical doctor who works with communities in Kenya, spoke up and explained that the climate science stuff is interesting…but it is not clear what communities are supposed to do with this information – there is too much uncertainty to define any real actions here.

A few case studies were then presented showing how weather and seasonal climate projections have the potential for improving management for climate-sensitive diseases such as rift valley fever, malaria, meningitis and dengue. These seemed to be helpful, but how are they related to climate adaptation?

These are all good points and good questions. It seems that Caroline was asking the climate scientists and health experts in the room to put aside their fancy models and labels and just focus on the community needs.

Communities today across the globe, and especially in Africa, have many needs related to managing the risks of climate and weather– including floods, droughts, and climate-sensitive diseases. The workshop discussions highlighted the opportunities and challenges of connecting the climate and health sectors to build tools for managing these risks.

Ultimately, for the poorest regions of the world facing the increasing threats from climate change, adaption is in large part simply about a heightened need for communities and nations to do what they need to do anyway in pursuit of sustainable development – such as improve health services, develop drought-resistant crop options and diversify income sources.

Does this all then just come down to semantics? At the community level it may be best not to worry about labels such as variability, change or adaptation. However, the implications of these semantics may be far reaching as policymakers to develop much needed climate adaptation assistance programs and face important questions such as who should pay for climate adaptation in the poorest nations where communities are most vulnerable to but least responsible for the changes underway? And what should be paid for, that is, what constitutes climate adaptation?

These are tough questions. I am optimistic that if we don't get stuck on the semantics but keep our eyes on our goals we will find solutions to enable the most vulnerable populations to take the concrete actions needed to improve their health and livelihoods.

Rosemary Sang led a session on Rift Valley Fever (RVF) and the lessons learned from the major RVF outbreak in 2006-07 where 155 people died.

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