Be Careful with Adaptation

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In Environment 360, the Yale Environmental Journal, Bruce Stutz writes about adaptation as an increasingly legitimate response to global warning. The begrudging acceptance of this strategy reflects a growing beliefs that we are moving too late to prevent significant temperature rise along with all its consequences.

“My view is that we’ll be lucky if we can stop CO2 at 600 ppm,” says Wallace Broecker, a geoscientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “There’s no way we’re going to stop at 450. Impossible. If we’re going to double CO2, we’d better prepare what we’re going to do about it.”

If Broecker and many of his fellow climate scientists are right, the planet will experience myriad far-reaching changes to which humans, plants and animals will need to adapt: higher sea levels, the melting of glaciers that have long supplied hundreds of millions of people with water, drought-stressed agriculture, more severe storms, spreading disease, and reduced biodiversity.

Many are now taking seriously the need for seawalls, massive irrigation systems, water diversions and other technological ways to counter the effects of climate shifts.

City planners are modeling the risks and working with New York citizens' groups and city agencies to develop a coordinated approach to protecting vulnerable roads, tunnels, water supplies, transit, sewers, and water treatment plants. One firm has proposed a concrete tidal barrier that would stretch across the neck of lower New York Bay, similar to one that the Russian government has already commissioned to protect St. Petersburg from rising levels of the Baltic Sea.

I have been among those who have cautioned against this approach as only a quick fix--one that defocuses attention away from changing the socioeconomic-technologic system to radically transform the way we obtain energy and use it. The urgency of action to control climate change shifts attention away from the long-term, fundamental energy problem--converting fossil to renewable sources based on solar irradiance on the Earth’s surface. Of course, it’s a twofer. Every kilowatt-hour gotten from the sun offsets the release of greenhouse gases.

There’s a second defocusing associated with a turn to adaptation. The need for a radical adaptation of our culture gets pushed far into the background. Adaptation via technology is almost always an ironic choice as technology is almost always one of the major causes for the problem to be addressed. Global climate change is a consequence of the massive economic development accompanying modernity. Most of that development is a product of technological innovation.

Unsustainability of which climate change is only one, although perhaps the most threatening, sign, also has other cultural roots, which in a vicious circle of embedding over centuries, has diminished human Being. We have come to believe that the world is out there for us to master and use for our purposes. Another irony--the technology we have used to gain mastery has created problems of magnitudes never before encountered in modern times. We must quickly realize that the most important adaptation is that pertaining to ourselves and our modern culture. We are fortunate to be able to adapt by adopting new beliefs and practices relatively quickly. Other species must adapt according to a Darwinian time schedule, and that will be too slow for many faced with the rapid onset of climate change. We are heading for a sixth massive extinction wave argue some scientists.

Being able to adapt is, however, not the same as acting now. President Obama is already overloaded with crises, but needs to turn his attention to this absolutely critical set of concerns. Technological Band-aids are obviously important and useful, but only if they provide enough time and resources to turn to the central issue of culture change. The engineer I was trained to be is very pleased with Obama’s elevation of science and technology to its rightful place, but he must not become lulled by its siren song. Maybe he and his advisors will have to plug their ears with beeswax, just as Odysseus forced his crew to do, to escape its lure, and move on to deal with the real problem--transforming our culture.

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