Automatgenererad bild.

9 May 2014

Sweden behind in climate adaptation

Local decision-makers need to know more about climate adaptation, and do not always take the issue seriously enough. There is a perception that climate change will mostly benefit us in the Nordic countries, but nothing could be more wrong according to Åsa Gerger Swartling, a climate researcher in Mistra-SWECIA.

Sweden has traditionally had a high profile in combating climate change. But the surrounding world has regarded us as laggards when it comes to adapting ourselves to change. Many other countries, such as the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark, have advanced further in climate adaptation. The same applies to a country like Bangladesh, where the population is accustomed to flooding and extreme weather and there is preparedness for climate events.

Åsa Gerger Swartling says: ‘In Sweden we’ve been lulled into a belief that climate change will mostly benefit us: that it will get a bit warmer, so there can be vineyards in southern Sweden and we can expect faster forest growth. In fact, there are various negative effects on natural ecosystems and several sectors of society — effects that are insufficiently known.’

Already harming forestry

Swartling, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is associated with the Mistra-SWECIA climate adaptation programme. She finds examples of climate impact in the forest sector, which she and her colleagues are investigating. Forest owners are already noticing the shifting seasons and shrinking permanently frozen ground (permafrost). Because of flooding, more resources must be devoted to water runoff and ditch clearance. Road damage from heavy vehicles, in the absence of permafrost, is bringing heavy costs.

These are climatic effects that are, moreover, expected to increase in a warmer climate. In other sectors of society, too, climate research indicates adverse effects. But too little is known about what the impact may be at local level.

One explanation is that the research sometimes has a perspective that is too global. There is, for example, a lack of economic models for calculating the costs of climate change at local and regional level — models that farmers and forest owners can use. Another reason is that existing knowledge is not reaching local decision-makers. More meeting-places and forums where municipalities and regions can learn from one another in a more systematic way are needed.

‘Climate adaptation is largely local. Many of the important decisions are taken locally, especially in Sweden where we have such strong municipalities,’ Swartling says.

Municipalities can learn from one another

The news is not all doom and gloom. Sweden is nonetheless making progress in climate adaptation and Swartling is aware of a number of municipalities and regions that have a conscious strategy for climate adaptation. But they diverge widely, and the municipalities that are lagging behind need to learn from the frontrunners. Here, more bridges are needed between the research and local operators who can support municipal politicians in taking decisions that may hurt at the time but that will be worthwhile in the long term.

What, then, needs to be done?

‘The municipalities can learn more from one another. And we researchers need to get our knowledge out to people. We have a key function: not only writing scholarly articles for an academic readership, but putting the message across in popular terms. But the academic reward system doesn’t encourage that. You don’t get to be a professor by writing a policy brief,’ Swartling concludes.

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