A study published in October looked into how the human population has adapted to climate change. Pulling together information from over 1,682 articles and involving more than 100 global experts — including researchers from the University of Michigan — the study is one of the largest and most exhaustive analyses of human adaptation to climate change to date.
The study used machine learning techniques to sort through more than 48,000 research articles to identify literature related to human adaptation. Results from the study showed that current adaptations are fairly inconsistent and do not offer the large-scale changes that would have to occur for the adaptations to be truly helpful.
The study also identified eight priorities for further research going forward, including expanding the study to include the perspectives of private sectors to better understand the role of business and private companies in promoting human adaptation.
Global climate change has led to natural disasters, warmer temperatures and extreme weather events in the last several decades. Currently, the effects of climate change are primarily handled through mitigation strategies such as planting more trees or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Though these mitigation strategies are beneficial, researchers say there needs to be more focus on human adaptation in response to climate change. Adaptation refers to the altering of human behavior to better plan for and exist in a world that has been irreversibly altered by climate change.
Paige Fischer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, played a key role in the development of the study.. As one of the co-authors of the paper, Fischer also led the screening team responsible for writing the algorithm that determined which articles ended up in the systematic review.
Given the magnitude of this study, Fischer said the process of researching work done in this field was a massive undertaking and one of the first of its kind.
“There’s just more people out there publishing, and it’s getting harder and harder to get a handle of what’s known and what’s not known,” Fischer said. “This was a real kind of novel adventure into incorporating machine learning into a systematic review. It was just like a pretty Herculean effort in terms of new technology and then also having 126 participants in the systematic review, so that in itself makes it kind of groundbreaking.”
According to Science Advances, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the effects of climate change can be seen most clearly in poorer countries located in the southern region of the globe, but that’s not to say that Ann Arbor will never see the effects of climate change. Fischer said the city of Ann Arbor is already addressing some climate change concerns and specifically adapting to the recent heavy rainfall.
“One of the big climate exacerbated stressors that affects Ann Arbor is heavy precipitation events that lead to flooding,” Fischer said. “Some of the things that are pretty easy to see driving around are rain gardens where individual families are installing rain gardens in their yard to capture some of the runoff from heavy precipitation events to prevent flooding in their yards and then the city itself, they’re promoting rain gardens.”
This past summer, heavy rainfall and thunderstorms ripped through Washtenaw County, causing power outages and a state of emergency declaration. These events have led community members to advocate for municipal energy utilities as well as more focus on addressing climate change. In September, the Ann Arbor City Council said it was seeking a feasibility study to discuss whether to transition away from DTE Energy to public power utilities.
LSA senior Jelena Pejovic said the issue of involving private sectors in the study is more complicated since businesses often consider profit over social responsibility when deciding whether to take climate action.
“Recently, the kind of lens that environmentalists have been taking has been more from a perspective of saying to businesses that ‘If you’re going to ignore sustainability, you’re going to ignore your long term profits,’” Pejovic said. “And as that becomes more appealing to the operations of a business and the feasibility and profitability of a business, I think they are going to be a lot better about finding their place within that movement and generating additional social and environmental change as a result of that.”
Beyond just profitability, Pejovic also said the climate crisis is becoming too big for businesses to ignore.
“Companies are now kind of forced to look at the sustainability implications of their actions and of their choices, making sure that choices they are making now are feasible in the long run given the climate changes that are to come,” Pejovic said.
Business junior Haarika Karlapati is involved with the Student Sustainability Coalition, a student group that acts as a liaison between sustainability-focused student organizations and the University administration. Karlapati said it is frustrating to see companies refuse to take action.
“And what’s frustrating is that we have all of the answers for climate change and corporations are aware, but they won’t make any change if they don’t see any benefit for themselves,” Karlapati said. “So that’s why I really think it has to be a systemic and societal shift in priorities.”
Another priority the study identified was to enable individuals and civil society to enact changes themselves. Though the study said focusing on large-scale, systemic changes by the government is certainly important, it also said“this narrative can divert recognition and resources from the importance of autonomous adaptation by individuals and households, particularly in the Global South.”
Karlapati echoed these sentiments, saying that students in particular have an important role in promoting climate change action.
“I think students are the voice of the new generation, and I think we have the most power to enact real change,” Karlapati said. “I think getting involved with policy, with government, is the most impactful thing we can do.”
Going forward, the other priorities that were identified by the study include: assessing the effectiveness of adaptation responses; understanding limits to adaptation; filling the gaps in scholarship; improving methods to include different forms of evidence; assessing adaptation at different temperatures; and considering the timeline of implementation of adaptation measures.
Daily Staff Reporter Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.