Ready or Not

Even if We Stopped Burning All Fossil Fuels Today, We are Locked into Some Climate Changes. Time to Get Prepared

Five years ago, at a private dinner where senior members from several major environmental organizations were seated next to her, Beth Raps, a progressive activist from Virginia, began talking about the need to figure out how to adapt to changing climate patterns. Mid-spiel, she noticed something odd. “Everyone had sort of started to edge away from me at the dinner table,” she recalls.

Raps had raised what was then a taboo subject among most greens. No one wanted to mention adaptation as a possible response to a warming world. Not when environmentalists were facing stiff political resistance to setting limits to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate activists feared that if they acknowledged that some climate disruption was inevitable, it would undermine their push for emissions curbs (known as “mitigation” among climate wonks). To say we had to bolster our defenses against a changing climate would be an acknowledgement that mitigation was ineffective, that we couldn’t stall global warming by altering our carbon-spewing lifestyles. Talk of adaptation was seen as defeatist.

It didn’t help that Al Gore had dismissed adaptation as “an obstacle to the correct political response, which is prevention,” while climate skeptic George W. Bush championed adaptation when he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the United States could adjust to climate change and free-market forces would take care of problems as they arose. Basically, the political calculus was totally against Raps.

“It had been so spun that certainly people thought it was a horrible thing when I said I wanted to work on adaptation,” says Raps, who went on to co-found Adaptation Network, a former Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that served as a kind of one-stop resource center for all things related to adaptation to climate change.

Had Raps been talking at the same dinner table today, she might have found a more receptive audience.

It’s a confirmed fact that Earth is at a turning point in its 4.5-billion-year history, and that we humans are the catalyst of that change. We have so irrevocably altered our planet in the past 200 years that we’ve set off a new geological era, one that scientists are unofficially calling the “Anthropocene” – the Age of Man. The human footprint is writ large over Earth’s surface. Yet at no other time has humanity been so vulnerable to nature’s fury.

The evidence of our power to disrupt the climate – and proof of our vulnerability to that disruption – is mounting. Summer floods in Asia and Australia, winter storms in Europe and North America, heat waves and fires in Russia – extreme weather events directly impacted tens of millions of people, killed at least 60,000, and cost nearly $70 billion in 2010, which also happened to be the hottest year ever recorded. The battering has continued. In 2011, the US alone has been slammed with blinding snowstorms in the Northeast; the deadliest tornado season since 1936 which has cost 536 lives; the worst one-year drought in Texas since 1895; raging wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico; and massive flooding from North Dakota to Mississippi. These events have cost the United States between $23 and $28 billion already.

Apart from a few holdouts, the global scientific community agrees that the growing number of weather-related catastrophes are linked to climate change – the fallout from a warming world. No longer can we rely on the stable climate that has sustained our “good life” on Earth. Bigger, meaner, and more frequent storms, heat waves, fires, floods, and droughts are the new normal.

It is unquestionably time to bring adaptation into the climate change conversation.

Let’s face it: We’ve failed at mitigation so far. Our two-decade-old global framework to address climate change is woefully inadequate. The Kyoto Protocol is a mess of unmet goals and bickering governments. Carbon trading schemes have been fraught with fraud, theft, and even the involvement of organized crime. Here in the US, the Senate couldn’t manage to pass watered-down climate legislation last year. Meanwhile, there are more greenhouse gases in the air than ever.

Because of a generation of delay, we have locked ourselves into certain unavoidable climate disruptions. Even if we go cold turkey today and cut out all fossil fuel from our lives, global temperatures are still going to rise by at least 2 degree Celsius by 2100 – which scientists say is the threshold of dangerous climate change. This is in part because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for at least a century. And that means every bit of greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere now is committing us to higher global temperatures in the future. Some climate scientists are now warning of a 4 degree Celsius rise by the end of the century.

So while the need to reduce our emissions is more urgent than ever, it’s clear that we also have to figure out how to hunker down and live with a harsher climate. What’s tragic is that we could have avoided this fate. Mitigation, although politically complicated, is much simpler than adaptation. Coming up with solutions to cope with an unpredictable climate is bound to frustrate even the best adaptation planners. But at this point, since we failed to do what was easy, we have little choice but to deal with a much more difficult challenge: finding a way to live on a whole new planet.

“Here’s the new mantra, gaining fairly wide currency: we have to adapt to that which we can’t prevent, and prevent that to which we can’t adapt.” That’s how author and climate activist Bill McKibben explained our predicament to me.

The mantra has been gaining strength among the close- knit community of climate scientists and activists over the past few years, says Susan Moser, an independent climate scientist whose work focuses on climate-change communication and society’s response. Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s flim, An Inconvenient Truth, were two big pivots that turned adaptation from a taboo subject to a grudgingly accepted strategy among professional environmentalists. An unrelenting torrent of extreme “natural” disasters in succeeding years helped drive home the point. The convergence of these events, Moser says, led to a gradual loosening of the entrenched positions on mitigation and adaptation. The two are no longer viewed as either/or alternatives, but as complementary parts of a holistic approach to dealing with global climate change.

Balancing adaptation and mitigation is hard in a nation where the politics of denial rule.

But maintaining a balance between mitigation and adaptation can be challenging in a nation where the politics of denial still rules; where the public is less likely to believe in global warming than it was five years ago. “I think the focus on adaptation, though important, really gives a false sense of security,” says Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It gives the impression that we will be able to adjust to whatever climate impacts we create. Even the term ‘adaptation’ implies we will be able to make a kind of evolutionary change to adjust.”

Wolf has a point. Big Industry’s lobbying outfits like the US Chamber of Commerce, which spent more than $30 million in the 2010 election funding candidates who were climate deniers, often use the idea of climate adaptation to oppose emissions curbs. Humans could “acclimatize” to a hotter world “via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations,” the chamber said in written comments to the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2009.

Wolf cautions that any talk of adaptation “must be done firmly within the context of mitigation.” That seems to be the consensus among environmental campaigners, who, while admitting the need for adaptation, are still leery of shifting the spotlight from mitigation. Old concerns persist.

“Very few environmental groups are actively saying that we need to talk about [adaptation] as an equal and important piece of how we deal with climate change,” Moser says. “The exceptions I see are groups that are into ecosystem conservation like World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy.” They are the exceptions because climate change is already impacting their mission, as species across the world disappear hundreds of times faster than the natural rate. For the rest of the environmental community, though, adaptation continues to present a vexing political dilemma.

While activists debate the appropriate place of adaptation in their advocacy, some governments and businesses are already making adaptation plans. For them, the politics are irrelevant. They can see the new reality, and they are rushing to put in place policies to ride out the worst disruptions.

In March, President Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality instructed all federal agencies to analyze their vulnerabilities to climate change, train their workforce on climate science, and implement agency-specific adaptation plans by September 2012. Private companies that do business with the feds, such as builders and defense contractors, will also have to comply with the new adaptation guidelines.

The order is the most comprehensive federal directive on adaptation so far. But even prior to the directive, several federal agencies dealing with natural resource management had begun quietly exploring adaptation. The Department of Interior, for example, requires climate change impacts be considered in its decision-making. The US Forest Service last year released a roadmap to making the nation’s forests more resilient to climate change, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is leading efforts to anticipate the health effects of climate change, such as from heat waves and changes in disease patterns.

Dispersed adaptation efforts are happening across US states and cities, too. Thirteen states – Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin – have begun adaptation planning alongside their mitigation activities. Eight more are considering creating comprehensive adaptation plans, according to a Pew Center on Global Climate Change report.

Actual groundwork has begun in hundreds of riverine and coastal communities in anticipation of rising seas and overflowing (or drying) rivers. New York City is encircling its boroughs with shoreline parks, marshes, and dunes that will blunt the blow of rising waters and storm surges. It plans on introducing more ferries and painting rooftops white to reflect sunlight and make the city cooler. Chicago, which scientists say will feel more like a Louisiana city by the end of this century, is replacing six of its most common sidewalk trees (including the Illinois state tree, the white oak) with species like swamp oak and sweet gum that will thrive in a hotter climate. In California, planners are working on wetland restoration and considering higher sea walls around the San Francisco financial district, as well as levees around the Oakland and San Francisco airports.

Some coastal communities where climate change impacts already pose a clear and present danger have begun “managed retreat” efforts. The village of Newtok, Alaska is relocating nine miles inland to escape erosion and flooding caused by melting permafrost and ice sheets. Five other Indigenous Alaskan villages will have to be shifted soon. The list includes the village of Shishmaref, which voted to relocate in 2002 but doesn’t have the money to do so. “We are hoping to still move. We’ve been lucky we haven’t had too many storms in the last three years,” a weary Tony Weyiouanna, chairman of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, told me. Weyiouanna says he has pretty much given up working on the relocation project. “I just got kind of burnt out, you know.” Managed retreat isn’t easy if you have nowhere to retreat to – a lesson worth keeping in mind.

artwork showing an arid landscapephoto Scarabaeus, illustrations by Lilli Keinaenen

There are many similar examples of big and small adaptation efforts across the country. But here’s the rub: Such proactive initiatives remain rare and isolated and, as the Pew report notes, there’s no process for sharing information and solutions across jurisdictions.

Missy Stults, climate programs director of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability-USA, a group that specializes in mitigation and adaptation support – calls the lack of coordination a normal teething problem. “It’s like any other social movement,” she explains. “You need someone to move first. And I think we are close to a tipping point where those being impacted now, the New Yorks, the Chicagos, the Miamis, are starting to move. At some point there’ll be a tip in society and other communities will start coming on board.”

That sounds reasonable enough; after all, it takes time to implement big changes. But the question is: Can we afford to wait much longer?

The ticking clock of rising greenhouse emissions means that adaptation is essential. But while we can comprehend the threat at a global level, climate change models still can’t accurately predict regional, to say nothing of local, impacts. The absence of detailed, local forecasts makes Moser fear that while the current adaptation efforts are a move in the right direction they are also “at risk of being under-informed, done hastily, or simply done without the benefit of all the appropriate expertise on the table.”

Let’s say, for instance, that California was forced to move sections of scenic Highway 1 inland. Which sections, exactly? What towns would be affected? How much would it cost? Or take cranberry farmers in Massachusetts, who could lose the cold winter temperatures they need for the berries to thrive. What should they grow instead? There are no obvious answers to such questions: Village by village, town by town, we will have to figure out where to retreat and where to retrench.

“If you look at mitigation, it’s relatively simple,” Stults says. “You can hire someone to do a greenhouse gas inventory, which tells you where you have to reduce emissions. And there are pretty standard things you do, right? … You think about renewables, get some alternative fuels in the mix – it’s pretty straightforward. But with adaptation you can’t say what the number one strategy is for every community. Because it’s fundamentally a local problem. Your vulnerability is dependent on where you are and in what circumstance. … And that’s what makes it so tough.”

In other words, we know what’s causing climate change – an increase in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere largely as a result of human activities. And we know what to do to slow it down – reduce our emissions. But we don’t know enough about the impacts of global warming because the climate system is asymmetrical. While New York City might have to worry about flooding, upstate New York will have to cope with a drier climate.

Jack Liebster, principal planner of Marin County, California, knows this from personal experience. Marin is considered one of the nation’s top climate-ready communities, but Liebster says the county’s adaptation planning is hampered by lack of localized climate-impact studies. “When we are trying to figure out how our rainfall patterns are going to change, the global climate models that we have don’t resolve down to little Marin County,” he says. “They can’t tell us what’s it going to mean in terms of one of the advantages we have for dairy – the fog. Farming is a very important part of life here in Marin. Because of the moist, foggy, conditions we get very rich grazing lands for a much longer part of the year. Are we going to see less fog? Are we going to see hotter summers?”

Not surprising then, that many communities trying to figure out adaptation strategies are finding the process confusing when they get down to the details. The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, for example, found it so difficult to identify concrete adaptation strategies that the organization actually put out a paper titled “Why Adaptation Policy is More Difficult than We Think.”

Uncertainty is a major reason for the difficulty. Uncertainty about future climate projections – we continue to discover things about the climate that change our understanding of it. And, even more difficult, uncertainty about people’s values – our ideas about what should be saved depend on our socio-economic circumstances, political leanings, and geographic location. Peoples’ values are always changing, conflicting; they can’t be lumped into a scientist’s average value.

photo of a flooded landscape, roofs just topping the water levelphoto courtesy Army Corps of Engineers

EPA’s sea level rise expert, James Titus, a self-proclaimed adaptationist, says “managing human expectations” is by far the toughest part of adaptation. “Most people assume that their community will be protected, and because it’s hard for governments to tell people to move (imagine no Wall Street or Miami Beach!) we might end up spending money and resources saving places even when it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense,” he says. The EPA, incidentally, published a manual in June on how not to hold back the sea, arguing that immovable seawalls and levees will eventually fail.

As Titus says, the best adaptation practices will require flexibility. Andrew Revkin, The New York Times’s former climate reporter and now a senior fellow at Pace University, recommends policymakers replace the term “adaptation” with “resilience.” Adaptation, he believes, “implies a faux sense of concreteness and that we know the change that’s coming.” “Resilience” better captures scientists’ uncertainty about the severity of climate change impacts.

In a way, adaptation faces the same problems as mitigation – only more so. There’s the challenge of “indirect benefits”: The people developing adaptation plans might not be alive to see their benefits. Also, the related problem of time frame: Effective adaptation efforts will require decades of action, and that’s too long for most people to get a handle on. Then there’s the sense of false security that accompanies ignorance, the American public’s notion that we are in good shape compared to less wealthy nations.

“It’s our biggest blind spot,” Moser says.“Eventually the impact [of climate change] will become more and more expensive to deal with. To me, the lack of addressing this flawed notion proactively makes us more vulnerable.”

Moser’s concern reveals the trouble of climate change’s negative feedback loops – the more the climate changes, the faster it changes, the less we will be able to adapt to it. Unless we simultaneously slow down the pace of change, we will be playing a losing game of catch up. Which is why the best adaptation strategy remains mitigation. It’s the key to softening the blow even as we learn to live with it.

As far as learning to live with it goes, the US is way behind many other nations, both wealthier and poorer.

The Dutch – whose existence depends on their levees, lock gates, and sea pumps – are clearly ahead of the rest of the world. They are building a 200-year climate resilience system that includes “floating communities” that can rise with surging waters, garages that double as water catchments, higher floodgates, and coastlines bolstered with sand dunes. They are also relocating farmers from flood-prone areas and widening rivers and canals to contain anticipated overflows. But the cost is steep – an estimated $5.7 billion a year.

At the other end of the economic scale, Bangladesh has come up with some cheaper solutions. Floods, erosion, and cyclones are such familiar foes of the tiny, crowded nation that Dr. Ainun Nishat, one of its leading environmentalists, once described the country to me as “nature’s laboratory for natural disasters.” Although global warming is making things worse, the resilient Bangladeshis are coping by using low-tech strategies like floating fields made of dried water hyacinth, managing the flow of river sediments to create new land, as well as slightly higher-tech solutions like developing salinity-resistant rice strains and early cyclone warning systems.

Meanwhile, as governments worry about risk, some businesses are seeing opportunity. In a recent poll of global businesses, 86 percent of companies surveyed described responding to climate risks or investing in adaptation as a business opportunity.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Businesses worldwide are already feeling the impact of more frequent storms, water scarcity, and declining agricultural productivity. In the past few months, prices of sugar and cotton reached a three-decade high because floods in Australia destroyed sugarcane crops and the drought in Texas decimated cotton output. In this changing environment, as World Resources Institute managing director Manish Bapna says, “companies that move first to address the risks and develop innovative strategies to adapt to climate change are likely to be the winners.”

The biggest example of private sector engagement in adaptation planning is the insurance industry, which realized early that working on climate protection makes economic sense. The industry has much to lose. A report by financial services company, Allianz, estimates that from 2010 to 2019 the insurance industry’s average worldwide losses from weather related disasters could total $41 billion annually.

Adjusting to life on a hotter planet may have one virtue: It will require us collaborate with people we have never considered before.

Insurance companies are, therefore, getting involved in a range of loss prevention and disaster risk management activities in collaboration with local governments. At least 30 insurance companies have signed a deal with the United Nations that commits them to help build resilience to climate change. Global reinsurer Swiss Re, for example, is collaborating with Oxfam, the Ethiopian government, and other partners to establish the Horn of Africa Risk Transfer for Adaptation project, which provides weather index insurance for small farmers in Ethiopia. The weather insurance scheme is resilience planning at its best: When it rains, farmers will thrive, and when it doesn’t, they won’t have to fear becoming destitute.

Adjusting to life on a hotter planet may have one virtue: It will require us to have conversations and collaborations with people and groups we have never considered before, like that villager in Bangladesh who knows how to make a bed of water hyacinths, or that big insurance company that many of us love to hate. Adaptation will force us to think laterally and to work in ways we are not accustomed to.

Back in Virginia, Beth Raps wonders if we might not be seeing “a kind of softening of the boundaries of what counts as climate change and the right response to it.” After all, a lot of what we need to do to adapt to a warmer world – like learning to make do with less water or switching to renewable fuels – is what we should be doing anyway to reduce environmental destruction. I’d go a step further and say there are other boundaries that are blurring: There’s a growing realization that global warming isn’t only about the environment, but also about human rights and economic justice and ultimately, since we can’t help but look at it from an anthropocentric perspective, about the survival of our species on Earth.

It is becoming obvious that while we may be creators of this new Anthropocene world, we are also dangerously close to becoming its destroyers. And while we may be “as gods,” we don’t have a heaven to escape to as Earth disintegrates below us. The real test now is to see if we have the wisdom to learn how to live with our own creation.

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal

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