“Climate change: adapting to what we can’t prevent, and preventing what we can’t adapt to.” Dr. Stephen Schneider, Stanford University
“We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked. This is a crisis we cannot afford to ignore.” Henry Paulson, former Treasury Secretary, George W. Bush administration
“Just as a 1.4 degree fever change would be seen as significant in a child’s body, a similar change in our Earth’s temperature is also a concern for human society.” American Association for the Advancement of Science
“The many crises facing us should be seen…not as threats, but as chances to remake the future so it serves all beings.” Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute
Climate change. Global warming. Global weirding. Whatever you call it, anthropogenic (human caused) climate change is a reality, affirmed by a large and accumulating body of scientific evidence.
These days, a lot of serious and substantive conversations about climate change revolve around one question: “So what do we do now?”
The answer is adaptation, and mitigation. “Adapting to what we can’t prevent, and preventing what we can’t adapt to.” It has to be both.
Adaptation: “adapting to what we can’t prevent”
Some change is already baked into the climate system, and warming will continue to increase no matter what. Even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, the greenhouse gases (GHG) we have added to the climate system are going to do their warming thing for a long time, for many decades at a minimum. There is social, economic, and environmental damage and disruption now, and there will be more into the future.
What does it mean to adapt?
A 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability assesses risks resulting from climate change, and evaluates options for managing those risks and adapting to expected and unexpected changes to human and natural systems.
For example, in many places, from the American west to the Andes, people rely on summertime glacier melt for fresh water. But glaciers are shrinking dramatically almost everywhere, putting at risk sufficient supplies of fresh water. What must be done to adapt to dwindling water supplies?
The report notes that in natural systems, migration patterns, geographic ranges, and seasonal activities have shifted for many species of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine organisms. That has real consequences, as a pine beetle infestation in the Rocky Mountain region demonstrates.
As winters in the U.S. continue to get warmer, cold weather in the west that would normally kill pine beetle larvae does not last long enough to do the job. Both last winter and this year, while the east has been colder than normal, the west continues to experience warmer temperatures. Combine that with earlier springs and the result is massive beetle outbreaks in the American west that last abnormally long and extend over a broader range. In the past ten years one species by itself, the mountain pine beetle, has killed more than 70,000 square miles of trees. We will either figure out how to stop the infestation without making the cure worse than the disease or adapt to having far fewer forests in the west.
Fewer forests means a transformed landscape, higher temperatures, lower atmospheric carbon absorption (trees are excellent carbon “sinks”), more arid conditions, higher erosion, and vastly transformed habitat for all kinds of species. Many species will have to migrate or disappear in that region.
The report points out that human and natural systems are vulnerable to climate-related extremes in many ways. Heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires and other changes impact food and water supply, damage infrastructure, alter ecosystems, threaten human health, and so on. What can we do to manage risks and impacts from these extremes?
According to Chris Field, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II which produced this report, “We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.”
And there is mitigation: “Preventing what we can’t adapt to.”
IPCC Working Group III released a report on this subject too: “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.” Mitigation is an essential investment in our future. It means taking strong actions now and into the foreseeable future to reduce and prevent additional GHG emissions, and taking aggressive actions to lower existing concentrations of atmospheric GHG.
A chilling statement from Chris Field explains why mitigation is so important: “With high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage, and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits.”
In other words, a business-as-usual approach, neglecting meaningful mitigation efforts now, means that eventually adaptation will no longer be possible. Yikes!
Mitigation requires collective, coordinated action on an international scale, a shift in societal priorities, and technological and behavioral innovation. Renewable carbon-free energy, significant increases in energy efficiency, improved transportation systems, innovative business management practices, and consumer behavior change are important mitigation initiatives. And we must protect and enhance carbon sinks like forests and oceans, and create new sinks via green agriculture and forestry practices, and increase green spaces in urban areas.
The bottom line of mitigation: creating a low-carbon society that prioritizes wellbeing rather than consumption, and lives within the limits of the global biosphere.
And here’s the thing. We know enough and have the skill to prevent the worst from happening and keep the climate within a range that we could consider more or less normal. But we have to act now. All we lack is the political will and bold, innovative action as individuals and as a society.
There is growing evidence that in some ways we are waking up. There are many examples of organizations, companies, and communities making a difference, and others documenting and forecasting meaningful change. For example:
- Goldman Sachs has concluded that solar is on the way to dominating the energy market.
- The book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, by Amory Lovins, lays out a blueprint for transforming the production and use of energy.
- Typical buildings are wasteful energy hogs. But buildings can be and are being designed, situated, built and operated in ways that create zero negative impact. Some even have a net-positive impact. My former employer, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, just opened the Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, a building described as “an international model for energy and water efficiency and climate change resiliency.”
- Biomimicry is a groundbreaking approach that uses nature as our model, mentor, and measure to inform how we manufacture things and use energy. All of nature’s manufacturing processes are life-enhancing, fueled by the sun, and happen at normal temperatures and pressures using water as the magic chemical.
What about our role as individuals? There are a lot of things we can do to move toward low-carbon lives. Chris Goodall’s book How to Live a Low Carbon Life: The Individuals’ Guide to Tackling Climate Change has been called “the definitive guide to reducing your carbon footprint.”
Individual behavior changes are necessary, but nowhere near sufficient. It will take collective, organized civic engagement, exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens to demand the policies and programs necessary to protect our future. And if our current elected officials at every level of government do not respond as they must, we have the responsibility, power, and ability to replace them with those who do understand and who more fully represent the public interest. Democracy in action.
This is exactly what happened after the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. The Clean Water Act. The Clean Air Act. The Endangered Species Act. The Safe Drinking Water Act. The list goes on. All this happened because citizens demanded it, and voted in ways that backed up their demands. Votes trumped narrow interests that for too long reaped private profits at enormous social, economic, and environmental costs to others. Rivers no longer catch fire, and pollution is regulated, at least to a degree.
But it is not nearly enough. We need strong, informed, organized citizen action to effect the change we need.
Upping the Stakes: Forget Shorter Showers – Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change, by Derrick Jensen, makes this point in a provocative way. Originally published in Orion Magazine, it has been republished at the Charter for Compassion website.
One last point. You may be asking, “What about the debate? What about the argument that climate change is not happening, or if it is humans aren’t the cause?”
There is no legitimate debate about anthropogenic climate change. When questioners more fully understand who is saying what and for what reason, they inevitably reach the place described by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in a June, 2014, New York Times Op-Ed: “I’m a businessman, not a climatologist. But I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with climate scientists and economists who have devoted their careers to this issue. There is virtually no debate among them that the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible.”
If you want to understand where the faux debate comes from, read Merchants of Doubt, by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. It is a fascinating read, an indictment of those who, in the authors’ words, “blame the messenger, undermine science, deny the truth, and market doubt.” These merchants’ goal is to create legitimate-sounding arguments that are not sound science but sound like science, to confuse and mislead the public. Why? To delay action and protect vested economic interests and/or defend out of touch worldviews.
The really good news is that, as Amory Lovins says, ‘the crises we face can become opportunities to transform the future.’ The climate crisis is telling us that we need to do things differently if we want a better world. OK, thanks for the heads up!
Calling on “the better angels of our being” in ourselves and others, we can create a political and social environment where meaningful and creative change can happen. With the right mindset and a shared commitment to the common good, we can avoid the worst and promote the best. I like the way Peter Block puts it: “Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.”