Adapt! The cry of the coward

The failure of the negotiators at Bali to reach any kind of agreement on a schedule for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has left many observers wondering if maybe it's time to resort to Plan B. Instead of adapting our industrial economy to the physical realities of radiative forcing and positive feedbacks, we should begin the process of adapting ourselves to a much warmer world. And why not? If there's one thing that sets Homo sapiens apart from the rest of the primate gang, it's our ability to adapt. Because planetary ecology isn't that simple, that's why.

Already, the confused logic of the climate change pseudoskeptics can be heard arguing in favor of the second option. The National Post's "Don't fight, adapt" is the headline above an open letter to the the secretary-general of United Nations from what William Connelly calls "the official nutters list!" ;;;; a gaggle of retired scientists and others with no real expertise in climatology who are convinced humans didn't cause climate change, so we are helpless to do anything about it anyway.

We therefore need to equip nations to become resilient to the full range of these natural phenomena by promoting economic growth and wealth generation.

In other words, the solution is to do more of what every respectable climatologist believes is the source of the problem -- pump more carbon-heavy molecules into the atmosphere by ramping up the engines of civilizations. Work that black seam together, guys.

There's a certain absurd appeal to this call to the status quo. You can at once acknowledge global warming and deny the need to do anything about it. But this would be disastrous, and not just because there is no genuine, peer-reviewed science to back it up. The real problem is that, even if humans can achieve the wildly improbable by finding the resources to adapt to a much warmer planet, one with higher sea levels, dryer deserts, stronger storms and reduced agricultural output, that still leaves the rest of the biosphere in great peril.

For example, the same week that the denial campaign published its letter to the UN (in what has become its in-house organ), the journal Science published a major review of what we understand about the ability of the ocean's corals to adapt to climate change and the consequent adn tfatal "bleaching." Their conclusion:

We recognize that physiological acclimation or evolutionary mechanisms could delay the arrival of some scenarios. However, evidence that corals and their symbionts can adapt rapidly to coral bleaching is equivocal or nonexistent.

Corals are important because they provide not only nursery habitat for countless other marine species, and "at least tens of millions of people depend on coral reefs for part of their livelihood or for part of their protein intake" according to a 1999 analysis by a pair of swedish ecology economists, Fredrik Moberg and Carl Folke.

Another overview, this one published just a few months ago, estimated the number of people that rely directly on artisanal coastal fisheries, almost all of which are connected intimately to coral reefs in one way or another, at 250 million, "and a further 150 million people work in associated sectors, such as boat-building." (Full disclosure: the lead author on that one is my former boss, Amanda Vincent of the University of British Columbia.)

None of those corals, fish, fishers or their families will have the option of adapting "by promoting economic growth and wealth generation." They are already pursuing a subsistence lifestyle, relegated to the bottom rungs of society. Anyone who has spent time in their communities would understand just how obscene is the call to adapt to climate change.

And that's just the because the corals couldn't adapt to small drops in pH levels and a few extra degrees fast enough. There are countless other examples, including the encroachment of malarial mosquito habitat on urban areas and the loss of fresh water supplies, from Phoenix, Ariz., to the Sudan to the 40 percent of the world's population that relies on glacial melt from the Himalayas.

Of course, we will have to do some adapting thanks to the radiative inertia ;;;; the warming that's already in the pipeline. Ten years ago, UN scientists wrote that "even if industrialized countries reduce emissions by 30-90 percent, global emissions would reach two to three times 1990 levels, so a slow start is difficult to correct later." We've known this for a while now. And our failure to act since then means even more extreme adaptations will be necessary.

But to abandon any thought of mitigating climate change, to quit now while we can, at least in theory, head off the worst of what's to come, strikes me as a lazy and cowardly approach, one that I will be hard-pressed to explain to my son's generation. What do we say when the reality of what we've done dawns on them.

"Let me get this straight," he'll say. "You had a finite supply of an enormously useful, but extraordinarily dangerous, product at your disposal, and you burned it all?"

Yes, son. And that's why I can't take you scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. It would be too depressing.

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Maybe we should just adapt to all problems that come our way instead of confronting them. We should pitch that scenario the next time they try to scare us with "islamofascism". Let's just learn to live in an Islamic Theocracy - the free market will still blossom which is what's most important anyway.

Seriously, do these people understand that their gross hoards of money won't mean much in an uninhabitable world? Maybe they think the rapture will save them from these perils but my guess is we'll all be living in the hell we're creating.

What will these industrial elite (in the Calvinist sense) do when their favored haunts in NY, London and Dubai are awash? Build domes in the Andes to await their salvation?
We unwashed clamor for technological efficiency and that suggests horrid competition to the mining of ancient sunlight. With the remains of the Industrial Age we just might pull it off and go Solar. That would mean Sustainable. That's Worldwide Competition! Loss of control isn't thinkable.
Yeah, we'll adapt with applied technology- just get off the pot, ye sluggards!

brother "...GIT",
I was composing while you posted. I suspect that we do have an arrogant elite of some sort, as you suggest. To consciously trash our Planet does imply a firmly held mystical metaphysics. I refuse to say "Stupid..." in a reply when the reverse is obvious.

Of course, we will have to do some adapting thanks to the radiative inertia the warming that's already in the pipeline. Ten years ago, UN scientists wrote that "even if industrialized countries reduce emissions by 30-90 percent, global emissions would reach two to three times 1990 levels, so a slow start is difficult to correct later." We've known this for a while now. And our failure to act since then means even more extreme adaptations will be necessary.

You do a fine job of explaining the rock and the hard place we find ourselves in between. I saw a show the other day that said when the dinos where running around the CO2 was 5 times higher than the present. If that is so than it at least shows life will be sustainable, albeit warm, at whatever level we end up stabilizing at in the future.
Dave Briggs :~)