Climate change adaptation: interdisciplinarity on steroids

Author: Jessica Hellmann

I am at the Steve Schneider memorial symposium and am tweeting about a number of very interesting talks. In putting my own talk together, “Integrative climate science for this century: in training and practice,” I've been thinking about interdisciplinarity and thought that I'd blog about that today. 

For the last decade or so, academics have been told--and some resisted--that multiple disciplines need to work together to do the next generation of cutting edge research and craft thoughtful and realistic solutions to the world's ills. Steve Schneider was a leader in advocating this idea, explaining to Deans and funding agencies that interdisciplinarity is the wave of the future. For the most part, academics have been listening to this call and many interdisciplinary opportunities can be found today with rewards that make for a successful academic life. (For example, see

But what fields really *require* interdisciplinarity? Answer: climate change adaptation. "Adaptation" means living with climate change and taking steps to reduce the negative effects of climate change where we can. Adaptation is the complement of mitigation, tackling the problem of climate change itself. Adapting to smaller amounts of climate change will be more effective, achievable, and economical than adapting to large climate change so we need to get moving on creating a cleaner economy. Adaptation is not a substitute for mitigation.

But, we are committed to warming already--our planet's climate is changing and greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Therefore, adaptation is going to be essential. Adaptation includes the construction of sea walls to prevent flooding, installing air conditioning to reduce mortality during heat waves, and building new irrigation infrastructure to maintain crop yields during drought. In my area, climate change adaptation will involve planting new things in new areas, designing new and improved parks and greenspaces, and working together to combat new pests and invasive species.

Can any of these adaptation strategies be addressed by science alone? By engineering? By economics? By sociology? No; it will take them all. But who among us will be able to garner all of these fields? Again, Steve Schneider did a darn good job at promoting and living interdisciplinarity, but many more need to follow his lead. Colleagues and I think that collaboration using innovative social networking tools can help, and we need that collaboration to happen fast because climate change is a problem for now, not just future decades. 

The folks responsible for implementing adaptation have no problem with interdisciplinarity--they will use whatever tools and thinking will help. But academics need to find ways to become still *more* interdisciplinary. They need to find creative ways to publish interdisciplinary work and deliver ideas to the folks that need it. In my opinion, academia, and the NGOs that function like academia, have tremendous potential to drive innovation in adaptation, pushing for new solutions that will work, will be accepted, and are cost effective. So I hope that universities can fly the flag of interdisciplinarity even higher. And I'm grateful that Steve Schneider showed us the way.

Watch the talks at the Schneider seminar at:, and see Tweets on the hash tag, #Schneider2011.

Schneider links: