What next? Adaptation will certainly play a part. So far, we have to adapt to a 0.8 degree Celsius rise above the 1850-1899 average global temperature, the University of London’s Samuel Fankhauser commented this morning.

Many assessments of adaptation costs to future climate change assume we have already filled this “adaptation gap.” Yet that’s not necessarily the case.

In developing countries, especially, but in some American communities also, key vulnerabilities persist. Poverty, limited access to credit. These hurdles make rebuilding after an extreme weather event, for example, much more challenging. Inadequate infrastructure is another vulnerability, one which was tragically illustrated by the Haiti earthquake earlier this year. The earthquake wasn’t climate related, but it demonstrated how a lack of planning and emergency services can dramatically increase risks to natural hazards.

Fankhauser points out that many communities will need to (1) address their vulnerabilities by reducing environmental and infrastructure stressors, (2) bolster their capacity to respond to change, and (3) manage climate risks — well before confonting expected impacts with future climate. For this reason, socio-economic development issues will need to be integrated into adaptation planning.

Thinking about Colorado’s climate sensitivities, our adaptation gap may not be so terrible. In terms of water resources, for example, urban water transfers have fortified some Front Range communities against water shortages while providing economic stimulus to agricultural areas. Aurora, one of the state’s largest communities, is about to unveil a water recycling plant.

Beyond state boundaries, the vulnerabilities of storage (the risk of drying out reservoirs) on the Colorado River are being carefully studied. I reported on one such research effort by CU Professor Balaji Rajagopalan last summer. High storage capacity is another boon, one that allows river water managers to adjust streamflows for both drought and flood conditions. This type of flexibility may become increasingly important for adaptions where uncertainty about the potential climate impacts is still large. The Colorado River system is even on its way to managing climate risks, with decision support from programs like the Western Water Assessment.

Colorado’s ski industry has also invested time and money into identifying water-related climate impacts: the “more rain, less snow” question. Aspen Skiing Company, in response to such vulnerability assessments, has invested substantially in climate mitigation tactics, building greener buildings, purchasing renewable energy credits, and running their snowcats on biodiesel.

Interestingly however, the ski industry is one place where adaptation to climate change could lead us in the wrong direction (maladaptation — my new word for the day). You can imagine that if warmer regional temperatures shorten the ski season, slopes might respond by making more snow, an energy-intensive activity that emits greenhouse gases and uses up limited water supplies. Exactly the effects that mitigation efforts are trying to minimize. The corollary for individual use would be turning up the AC in response to warmer summers.

Adaptation will be a necessary next step in climate responses, but we need to be thoughtful and strategic about what kind of adaptations we pursue.