Desperate Measures: If Cutting Carbon Fails, How Will Societies Adapt to Climate Change?

Student Group: 

Humans have a morbid fascination with the end of the world. Our undying affection for the zombie meme, our preoccupation with the Mayan calendar, and that awesome Eschaton scene in Infinite Jest all point to a weird fixation with our own demise.

Unfortunately, apocalyptic scenarios have the impolite habit of escaping the confines of the silver screen and infiltrating real life. Take the World Bank’s recent report on the future impacts of climate change, which might as well have been titled Apocalypse Now.

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Now, no one would confuse the World Bank with a collection of panic-prone environmentalists. But the report is scary as hell: it prophecies 4°C of warming by 2100, a disastrous scenario that would produce massive food shortages, droughts, wars, huge sea level rise, and other nasty threats to human existence. And that’s even if all countries adhere to current commitments to reduce their emissions. The world is inexorably becoming a hotter, hungrier, drier place –– except for coastlines, which are becoming hotter, hungrier, wetter places.

Most of the coverage in the run-up to COP18 has focused on the Durban Platform and the possible second period of the Kyoto Protocol. I’m sure you’ll read plenty of great writing by my peers on this blog about these two frameworks, and no doubt they’re crucial: the Durban Platform would enact an emissions reduction treaty with “legal force” (god forbid someone make the mistake of calling it “legally-binding”), and the second term of the Kyoto Protocol would extend voluntary cuts until we can get that tougher deal in place, which probably won’t happen until 2020 (hey, take your time, guys).

But even if both the Durban Platform and the second period of the Kyoto Protocol are ratified (which is far from a sure thing), we’re still gonna be in deep trouble. First, countries can’t alter their carbon-spewing economies overnight; realistically, some nations will take years, even decades, to reverse course away from fossil fuels. Second, there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere that some amount of warming is unavoidable even if we u-turned to a carbon-free global economy tomorrow. And while, say, two degrees of warming isn’t quite the civilization-ruiner that the World Bank thinks four degrees is, it’ll still be enough to seriously mess stuff up.

We have to face facts: Substantial climate change is going to happen, and it will severely disrupt societies all over the world. 

So what are we going to do about this disaster-in-progress?

Scientists, policy-makers, and lay-people all over the world are beginning to ask that question. A decade ago, adapting to climate change was the exclusive province of small island states like the Maldives. Here in the United States, we seemed to assume that our relative wealth would insulate us from the worst impacts of climate change, which we perceived as a far greater threat to countries in the developing world.

This year, though, the climate chickens came home to roost. Extreme heat and drought produced raging wildfires in Colorado and unprecedented crop failures in corn country; in some Midwestern states, swirling clouds of grit blocked out the sun for the first time since the Dust Bowl. Like never before, Americans connected the dots between these outlier weather events and climate change.

And that was before Superstorm Sandy. What Sandy did, to my mind, was demonstrate that our relative wealth would not save us –– that our most valuable infrastructure is also our most vulnerable, that the ability of climate change to wreak havoc far outstrips our ability to finance rebuilding. New York City’s only option is to somehow buffer itself against storm surge, and although implementing tide gates, wetland restoration, and absorptive streets will surely be expensive, those proactive measures won’t be nearly as expensive as losing the entirety of lower Manhattan. Adapt or die, as they say.

While coastal flooding is the major peril against which countries and communities are fortifying themselves, it is but one of many climate impacts to which humanity will have to adapt. What will we do about shifting agricultural zones –– as Bill McKibben put it, we can’t move Iowa. How will we respond when insect pests spread northward, propagating disease and destroying forests? What about when vital species are threatened by extinction or driven to higher elevations and latitudes? Or when the glacier-fed rivers that nourish our most populous areas, and our most fertile alluvial plains, go dry in the summertime?

And perhaps the most pressing concern: even if we can figure out how to adapt to these threats, who’s going to pay for the overhaul?

At Doha, I’ll be looking to see whether adaptation has become as much a part of the climate conservation as cutting emissions. By attending side events and interviewing diplomats, scientists, and NGO officials, I’ll try to gauge the state of adaptation science and implementation, and I’ll try to figure out how different countries are coping with the thorny problem of funding. I hope you’ll keep tuning in to this blog to see what my inquiries uncover.

If we’re lucky, apocalyptic scenarios will remain fodder for the movies. But the odds of getting lucky shrink every day, and we’re infinitely better off preparing for the worst than praying that the World Bank, and the rest of the ominous predictions, are somehow wrong.

–Ben Goldfarb