Sunday, March 2, 2008

Societal adaptation key element with climate change

originally published March 2, 2008 in the Terre Haute Tribune Star

The conference I attended the first week of February in London was titled: “Living with Climate Change: Are There Limits to Adaptation?” This international conference drew together the leading scholars in the world who study social adaptation to climate change. This is a new area of research, the first scholarly article published on the topic was in 1990.

It matters little whether climate is changing due to human activity or not. Recent polls indicate a sizable majority of Americans, better than 70 percent, believe human activities are at least partly contributing to the phenomenon. The climate is warming.

Adaptation is nothing new: humans have been adapting for thousands of years. However, the pace of this current change is going to force a more conscious adaptation on humanity’s part. The last such rapid change was about 5,000 years ago. It is not likely that humanity was aware of the change as we are today.

Most people think climate change is linear and as the climate warms we will adapt in an incremental manner. No one at this conference saw it that way. Instead, the scholars believe it will be abrupt, with many thresholds of mostly irreversible changes. Adaptation will not be like going down a gentle slide. It will be more like falling down stairs.

Our culture, institutions, religion, and technology will both constrain and help us adapt. Adaptation is going to be, in the end, a local phenomenon. A 1.5 degree Celsius increase in worldwide temperature will flood Miami. Will they adapt by building seawalls, much like London is already beginning to do? Will Miamians migrate inland and north, leaving behind their once-valuable properties? Will the rest of us bail them out for their property losses?

What strategies will Midwestern farmers favor who depend on rainfall for crops? Rainfall here is expected to increase, making mechanized planting and harvesting difficult in muddied, wet fields. The dry period farmers depend on to dry crops and fields for harvesting is likely to disappear.

One scholar demonstrated potential value-based conflict inherent in responses to future adaptation policies. She asked who are risk-takers, meaning the type to ski down a hill without a helmet, to not save money for a rainy day, to invest money in risky ventures as much for the thrill as for the payoff? And, what was our view on equity? Did we think that government should help those who need it most or whether government should help the most people? The way people answer these questions form four possible combinations and these form the axis of future political conflict as democracies face adaptation policies.

Many attendees were climate scientists who are working with social scientists on these questions. I was struck by their certainty about two things. First, that the atmosphere is warming and, second, that humans are contributing to that warming. They were the killjoys who noted several times the irony in 250 scholars of climate change and adaptation leaving such a large carbon footprint. Not to be outdone, I noted the use of bottled water from Scotland, instead of tap water, and the many imported foods. Almost by design, the mayor of London started London’s new Low Emission Zone in London that week. London is the most air-polluted city in Europe. The new program, as you can imagine, was met with mixed reviews.

I met one person who welcomes a warmer London climate. He is a 65-plus-year-old Londoner who was swimming in Hyde Park’s Long Water (a man-made pond built for Queen Caroline in 1730). He told me he swims every day, regardless of the weather. He invited me to see Peter in the bathhouse, that he had an extra suit if I would like to join him for a swim. “No thanks, I have to get to my conference that begins in a few minutes.” He told me that he doesn’t like to swim when there is ice on the Long Water. “No kidding,” I thought to myself. Trying to be polite, I said to him, “Yes, I can imagine icy cold water is hard to swim in.” He told me not because of the cold, but that “ice is sharp and can cut your skin, very bad.” He was thankful for last year’s record warm winter and the mild weather London was experiencing that week. It was about 45 degrees as we spoke.

Here is one chap who is already adapting to climate change.

1 comment:

Debra Worley, Communication said...

I was just at a conference on Engagement at Murray State University. The keynote speaker at the conference was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. author of the book, "Crimes Against Nature
How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy." The speech was both motivating and very disturbing. The "human factor" in the dramatic pace of climate change seems to be upping the ante for all of us.

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