It's my personal soapbox, a place for me to express thoughts and feelings, musings and rants, reflections and recollections; to have fun with words -- about things spiritual, environmental, social, political, economic, and, from time to time, personal. And of course about peace. Soapboxes are in public places (as London's legendary Hyde Park) on purpose, and so I invite conversations with you, for it is through civil discourse that we can gain some perspective on the seeming chaos of these changing times and learn together how to shape a positive future for ourselves, our communities, and the generations to come.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Climate Change: To Adapt or Not to Adapt?

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.


  1. Of course, we should care for those harmed by the climate. I think everyone agrees on this, and it goes without saying. But do we care more for people harmed by a climate-change (CC) drought than by a non-CC drought?

    I'm sure you will agree with me that this would be silly. The suffering is the same either way. The people need help just the same.

    Also, we cannot be sure what is a CC drought/flood/storm and what is not. The dust-bowl was by far the most damaging drought the US has had and that was not CC. And CA had a 60-year drought in the 1800's. We can know that CC is causing more problems, but science tells us we usually cannot know which ones (though occasionally we almost can)

    So this is a second reason not to pick out CC disasters and focus on those. We won't be sure, and this will cause huge arguments.

    So surely the answer is to ignore the question of whether a disaster is CC or not when giving aid. That could only be a help if we wanted to bias our aid and it would hurt immensely by causing senseless arguments.

    There are a few cases where we can predict the future well enough to start adapting early and save some money. But most of the time, the effects are too far in the future, and it is better to wait and later employ more advanced technology.

    To see just how hard it is, even to predict the impact of CC sea-level rise on small islands, you should read a small section of my book, Carbonomics, which you can get free here:
    See page 40, "Of Islands and Sea Level."
    It's an amazing story of a prize-winning eco-journalist who got his numbers wrong by a factor of 100 because he mis-read an article posted on his own web site. The article said "the island is sinking." He thought it said "the sea is rising." He did not know about the tectonic subduction zone.

    It's better not to mess around with the "science" of why people need help and just help them. Save the science for the policy question--how do we stop this?

    And here I will mention a small disappointment. My main point is this: We need to learn to cooperate. And Elinor Ostrom and the behavioral sciences have much to teach us. Good people should (1) help those in need regardless of CC, and (2) learn how to get real people (not just good people) to cooperate.

    So the CC question is this. How do we get good and not-so-good countries to cooperate and do more than their narrow self interest. If we fail at this we are doomed. If we keep ignoring it, we will fail.

    You can call me Steve

  2. No argument there, Steve. Of course, we (individuals and nations)should/must cooperate to help others (human and otherwise) in need when natural and man-made disasters strike, whether CC-caused or not. The point of my post is not aid for disaster recovery but rather structural change in our human community systems to better withstand and recover from future disasters when they do occur - again whether CC-caused or not.

    Climate change comes into the equation because of its expected impact on the increasing frequency and amplitude of such disasters. That is, more extreme weather events, more often. In addition to specific disaster events, rising sea levels and warming of ocean waters are impacting fisheries worldwide as well as the habitability of low-lying islands and coastal continental areas, with attendant economic and human consequences. For example, see http://hi.water.usgs.gov/studies/kwaj-serdp/, http://www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/risingsealevel_more.htm, http://islandstudies.oprf-info.org/research/a00003/.

    It is true that future technology may present new solutions at less cost. However, why wait for disaster to strike, so to speak, when we can read the handwriting on the wall now and have an opportunity to take steps that can mitigate the effects of those disasters later?

    And I'm not just talking about technological approaches and physical infrastructural preparations. We must also address, as you point out, the ability of our social, economic, and political institutions to cooperate and effectively proactively prepare for the changes to come and to humanely respond to disasters as (when) they occur.

    That is, to build adaptiveness and resilience into our human systems.

    And thank you for the link to your remarkable book!


  3. Further on this topic, see the latest issue of Yes! Magazine and the article (http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/as-rising-seas-force-exile-islanders-hold-fast-to-what-matters-most-20160129?utm_source=YTW&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=20160129) that starts:

    As Rising Seas Force Exile, Islanders Hold Fast to What Matters Most. Pacific Islanders are among the first victims of climate change-induced sea level rise. As natives quickly run out of land and struggle to maintain crops, leaders are searching for ways to protect their people and thousands of years of cultural heritage.