During dinner last week, a friend (let’s call him Steve), who is a climate change economist and consults internationally on the subject, argued against promoting adaptation to the changing climate. He does acknowledge that climate change is already under way and that we need to both adapt and put the brakes on (and possibly even, he says, throw the process into reverse). Yet, he fears that emphasizing adapting to it will be as if we are taking it as a given and won’t make the painful policy and personal efforts required to reduce our carbon footprint.
Steve makes a strong argument. However….
What do we say to those human souls from low-lying island nations that are already beginning to be submerged by rising seas? We shouldn’t help them find adaptive solutions?
What do we say to those members of our one human family in Africa and Asia whose arable lands, potable water, and ocean fisheries are already disappearing and driving them to overcrowded cities and even across national boundaries (as artificial and ephemeral as those borders are in the face of such epochal climate and population shifts) in search of food, drink, and livelihood? We shouldn’t help them find adaptive solutions that may help them stay at home and/or integrate into their destination lands and populations?
What do we say to communities all over the world, developed as well as less developed, even in this country, that are already experiencing increasing frequencies of and wild swings in extreme wind, rain, snow, heat, and cold and the consequent death, destruction, and disruption of economic and social activity? Do we not work together to find ways to redesign and rebuild the physical and human infrastructure of devastated communities so as to both recover from such disasters and mitigate against the inevitable future ones? Shouldn’t we begin that process even ahead of the devastation, so as to build both adaptation and resilience into community systems?
Of course, at the same time, we must take the painful cultural, economic, and political measures necessary to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint so as not to do more damage than we’ve already done to our planet and life on it. It is not either/or, it is both/and.
The process of climate change virtually unprecedented in modern human history is already well underway. It is a nonlinear, chaotic whole-system process, fraught with unknown thresholds and discontinuities we cannot begin to predict and comprehend until they are crossed. And we certainly have already crossed some. So, expectations of slowing or even reversing it are thus goals that we may or may not be able to meet.
What we can do is change our ways from those that have brought this situation about – and do no further harm.