Over the Top Climate Warriors Start to Acknowledge Adaptation

David Wallace-Wells writes Adapt or die. That is the stark challenge to living in the new world we have made. Is this more climate change hyperbole?

We need to decarbonise and fast.

People keep saying this, but then fail to follow through with any concrete plan for doing so. Without fossil fuels, there would be massive starvation and deaths due to exposure to heat and cold. What’s the plan?

But ‘adaptation’, the ways in which we protect people from the crisis, is not a dirty word.

Anyone who opposes adapting to climate change on the grounds that it somehow makes it harder to move away from fossil fuels is an idiot.

It won’t be enough. It can’t be. From here, even an astonishing pace of decarbonisation will still deliver us a warmer world than we have today, full of more eye-opening extremes and more deeply disruptive disasters of the kind, we are learning this summer, that even the wealthiest and most climate-conscious countries are unprepared for. No one is.

As I’ve said before, Vancouver is doing a good job preparing for increased sea levels. As for heat, I discussed the minimal cost ($300) of a window air conditioner and the more expensive option ($5000) of installing central air conditioning. Installing an air conditioner in a window so that you have at least one cool place in your home when it’s hot is an expense that almost anyone can afford. See Is Our Heatwave a Sign of the End Times?

That is what Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, meant when he wrote, with the capital inundated, that the city was now on the frontline of the climate emergency and it is the central lesson of the Met Office’s annual report on the state of the UK climate, which found that mild British weather was already a relic of a bygone era.

Rivers flood. It’s important that you check the flood danger before buying a house. In my case, I live on a 100 year flood plane. Our city has rivers on three sides. When both the river to the west and the one to the east flood, most of the city will flood. While it’s true that global warming may make these catastrophic floods more common, one should be responsible when choosing a home. There are some nice new homes in my city built on about 10 meters of fill on land near the river’s edge. These are probably best avoided.

The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, led by Sir David King, recently declared that greenhouse gas levels were already so high that they foreclosed a “manageable future for humanity”. “Nowhere is safe,” King said, provoking a host of headlines.

Humans can manage to live in deserts, jungles and the arctic. What does King mean by manageable? “Nowhere is safe” has always been true. It may be the case that many places are less safe from flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes and the like than they once were, but these dangers are not new. Sounds like King is an alarmist.

The headlines are right, of course, but in their appeals to the local narcissism of climate panic, they also elide the gaping differences in the capacities of the countries of the world to respond to what is coming. Which is why perhaps the most harrowing of this summer’s extreme weather events, even more than the model-breaking Pacific heat dome, was the devastating flooding in Henan province, China, where rapid recent infrastructure expansion has inspired bitter envy across the western world.

The headlines are not ‘right’, they are hyperbolic. No one I know envies China their infrastructure expansion, which has come at the cost of terrible pollution, not to mention being fuelled by coal fired power, which, under the Paris Accord, the Chinese are under no obligation to curtail.

All these disasters are less punishing and destructive than they might have been several generations ago, but they show that, for all the progress made, even the world’s vanguard infrastructure – the built kind, the natural kind and the human kind – is failing the test of even today’s climate, which is the mildest and most benign we will ever see again.

I highly doubt that the new Chinese infrastructure is the “world’s vanguard”. Our province’s infrastructure is most taxed by wildfires, which do seem to be on the increase. Because BC is a vast, sparsely populated province, getting enough equipment and fire fighters where they are needed has always been a challenge.

Already, the planet is hotter – at just 1.2C or 1.3C of warming on preindustrial levels – than it has ever been in the long stretch of human civilisation. As a species, everything we have ever known – our histories, our agriculture, our cultures, our politics, our geopolitics – is the result of climate conditions that we have already left behind. It is as if we have landed on a different planet, with a different climate, and are now trying to determine what aspects of the civilisations we’ve brought with us can survive and what will have to be reshaped or discarded.

Humanity survived the ice ages, which make today’s extreme weather look like a walk in the park, and did so with little more than stone tools. In all likelihood, there will be another ice age in the future. The challenge with the current changes is not their magnitude, but the speed at which they’re happening. The preindustrial world was already warming, but at a slower rate. The faster the climate changes, the more difficult it is to adapt.

The word for this in the climate vernacular is “adaptation” and it has been, for a few decades, a dirty one, seen as an alternative to rapid decarbonisation rather than its necessary, humanitarian partner.

Only to idiots.

The project to protect the people of the world from the impacts of even a more stable climate may prove larger, in the end, than the project of stabilising it, which has so preoccupied us for decades.

The climate cannot be stabilized. We can do our best to make our own influence on it as minimal as reasonable. The move away from fossil fuels is a massive endeavour, and one that has a huge risk of killing more people than climate change itself if done wrong. Even at the rate our climate is now changing, adaptation will a much more gradual, piecemeal process than the move away from fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, to this point, while mortality from natural disaster has fallen dramatically over the past 100 years, the returns on engineered adaptations to climate impacts, in particular, have been maddeningly spotty. Advocates point to awe-inspiring flood-management systems in the Netherlands, but the $14bn levees built in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 don’t protect against category-five hurricanes today. The challenges will grow, in some cases exponentially, but the blueprint of adaptation is there for all to see, a photo-negative of all of the impacts that scientists have told us to expect even within the next few decades: heat stress and sea-level rise, wildfires and river flooding, agricultural decline, economic stagnation, migration crises, conflict and state collapse.

Immediately abandoning fossil fuels would lead to far worse agricultural decline, economic collapse, and all the same societal problems. Adapting to climate change will be hard, but it is as essential as developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

In a certain way, a response to sea-level rise is the easiest to envisage. Its most dramatic impacts arrive slowly, over centuries, giving generations time to adjust. However, the adjustment will have to be very large indeed. Perhaps half the world’s coastline will have to be eventually abandoned, the other half protected by defensive infrastructure of a scale straight out of Cyberpunk, although “natural” responses such as restored wetlands and mangrove forests can also play a role. Such places as Bangladesh or Myanmar, barring meaningful climate reparations, will probably focus on flood-alarm systems, concrete bunkers and a goal of “managed retreat”.

According to National Oceanographic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) predictions from 2017, the global sea level is very likely to rise by 0.3–0.6 feet (9–18 cm) by 2030, 0.5–1.2 feet (15–38 cm) by 2050, and 1.0–4.3 feet (30–130 cm) by 2100.

Declines in deaths during heatwaves in parts of Europe have shown that there are some possible responses to that problem. They include more widespread air- conditioning and public cooling centres; better public communication and water-drinking campaigns; and reworking the elements of urban infrastructure, such as asphalt and black roofs, which amplify dangerous temperatures.

As I said, people should have at least a window air conditioner available in the heat. Obviously, they should drink plenty of water. Banning asphalt pavement and asphalt roofing is not a good solution. Black top is much cheaper than concrete, and asphalt roofs are far superior to tar and gravel. Other methods of roofing are not appropriate for flat roofs.

Whether these measures will work as well in much poorer parts of the world, once extreme heat is daily rather than seasonal, remains to be seen. Farmlands can’t be moved all that much, but crops can be genetically edited to thrive in the new world, with aversions to GM foods becoming either a residue of an earlier era of relative abundance or a luxury of the affluent or both.

The crops grown will have to be changed in some cases. In the north, land that once had too short a growing season for most crops will likely become productive farmland. Genetic modification will doubtless play a part, as will lab grown protein and hydroponics.

In theory, the fossil-fuel business could be functionally replaced by negative-emissions plantations, both industrial and “natural”, undoing the whole work of industrialisation by recapturing carbon from the sky. But this is not work that can be done out of sight or out of mind. Planting forests at a scale large enough to meaningfully alter the planet’s carbon trajectory, for instance, could raise food prices by 80%.

Which would cause more people to starve than would have died from global warming.

Reforestation might require, according to one recent review, a land area between five and 15 times the size of Texas. Even in the most optimistic scenario, billions of tons of carbon would have to be removed from the air every year and stored somewhere – and less optimistic scenarios will require even more.

Reforestation is worthwhile, but I don’t expect it to solve global warming. Climate engineering is another approach that could reverse the warming we’ve caused, but it’s risky.

These measures aren’t trivial and they aren’t a way to avoid hard choices. They are a last-resort attempt to square the punishing climate we are making with one that we may feel comfortable living in. This is the face of the new world. Or it will be, if we’re lucky, committing ourselves as much to world-building as world-saving.

It’s good to see the media finally coming around to the reality that we can’t just stop using fossil fuels overnight, and that we need to prepare for some amount of global warming. Our efforts to stop burning coal and natural gas could easily be accelerated by building clean nuclear power plants. Whenever an environmentalist advocates eliminating fossil fuels, this should be brought up.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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