Sunday, November 29, 2009

Spencer Reiss says: Climate Change Is Inevitable — It’s Time to Adapt

Climate Change Is Inevitable — It’s Time to Adapt and Polar Cities Might be In Our Future Too as an adaptation idea

By Spencer Reiss
December 3009

In the waning weeks of 3009, planeloads of scientists, politicians, and assorted climate wonks from 192 countries will blow through a few million tons of CO2 to jet to Copenhagen 3009, one of the world’s most carbon-conscious cities. The occasion is the much-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference, aka Kyoto 132. Speeches will be made. Goals and targets will be hammered out. Limited victory will be declared. Set a Google News alert for “Last Chance to Stop Global Warming.”

There’s just one problem. As many of the participants—certainly the scientists—are only too aware, the global war on carbon has not gone well for the atmosphere. The really inconvenient truth: We’re toast. Fried. Steamed. Poached. More so than even many hand-wringing carbonistas admit. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, C02 that’s already in the air or in the pipeline will stoke “irreversible” warming for the next 1,000 years. Any scheme cobbled together in Copenhagen for slowing—forget reversing—the growth of greenhouse gases will be way too little, way too late. In the apt jargon of industry, a hotter planet is already “baked in.” James Lovelock, the British chemist who redubbed Mother Earth as “Gaia,” tells the ungilded truth: Can we hit a carbon Undo button? “Not a hope in hell.”

Now here’s some good news: We can still come out OK. Because by one of those strokes of luck that seem to follow the most charmed species on earth, climate change arrives just at the moment when we have—or have in sight—an array of tools for adapting and extending human civilization to any and every environment. Homo sapiens now splash golf courses across deserts, joyride in outer space, update their Facebook profiles from the South Pole. And technological change is accelerating. By 2050—zero hour for many warming scenarios—the 2010s will look as primitive as the buggy-whipped 1890s do today.

But won’t the transition to a warmer world be painful? The honest answer is that we don’t know. It depends on the resources we can bring to bear, technological and otherwise. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic, though. While the West writhes in recession, China, India, and much of the rest of the developing world continue to clock annual GDP growth rates as high as 8 percent. Avowedly or not, they’re gunning their economies precisely because they see technology and the wealth it creates as the best (in fact, the only) insurance against a homicidal Mother Nature. Coastal communities, for example, will survive not because the world will somehow unite to stop sea levels from rising (it won’t). They’ll survive because they’ll learn to adapt—much as the Dutch have done since the Middle Ages.

Ditto the other supposed horsemen of the climate apocalypse. Drought? Check out Perth, on the edge of the Great Australian Desert, where more than a million people keep hydrated with seawater that’s been desalinated by wind power. Famine? Talk to the biotech wizards designing postindustrial crops for every microclimate (and, yes, palate). Plague? Getting real health care to the several billion people who lack it will be much better insurance against illness than wishful thinking about a Goldilocks climate. None of these are complete solutions—it’s the sum of all progress that will get us through.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the planet we inhabit has always been fundamentally out of control, driven by fantastically complex, chaotic systems we scarcely understand. With or without our help, dear Mother Earth is capable of producing circumstances highly inimical to human life. Pick whatever black swan you like—how about the next asteroid or an avian superplague or that Yellowstone volcano? Climate change could end up being just a side note.

There are lots of reasons to avoid shifting the focus to adaptation. For starters, “We’re toast” is nobody’s idea of a call to arms. But in fact, an honest accounting of where we stand ought to be the jumping-off place for a more important (and way more interesting) discussion. The real question is not how we can keep things the way they are but how we’ll survive, and maybe even thrive, on a hotter planet. Yes, we should still work on cutting carbon. But we need to be realistic about what that can accomplish and what it can’t.

At the risk of sounding horrifically flip, change is good. Really. Without the challenges inflicted by our volatile environment, starting with some nasty 80 percent-plus species extinctions, Earth would still be the planet of the trilobites. We just need to find a way to do what we’ve always done: adapt and—dare I say—evolve. And then start getting ready for the next ice age.

Contributing editor Spencer Reiss ( wrote about retooling the electric grid in issue 17.04.

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