Opinion: Politics aside, it's adapt or perish


BOSTON — I recently heard Britain’s Gordon Brown on the BBC saying that the climate conference in Copenhagen that begins Monday had better succeed because there is “no Plan B” for saving the world.

Well, there had better be a Plan B, because the Copenhagen approach will not succeed, and I would make it Plan A for “adaptation.”

In the lexicon of climate change, “mitigation” is the favored word. Mitigation means doing all the things, such as cutting carbon emissions and the like, that can slow the warming of the world. Mitigation is Plan A at Copenhagen.

Adaptation means doing what we have to do to adapt to the earth’s warming. In the viscous world of climate-change politics, in which challenging the conventional wisdom is akin to holocaust denial, adaptation can be a dirty word. If you talk about adapting it means you have given up on trying to stop climate change. Therefore you hear a lot less about adaptation then you do about mitigation.

This is wrong-headed and foolish. First of all, Copenhagen has already failed in that it will not produce anything legally binding. Secondly, there is not the political will to cut carbon emissions to anything like what will do any good. There never has been and there never will be. The so-called developing world is simply not going to give up on its chance for industrialization to please the post-industrial West, and the post-industrial West is itself divided. Denmark may be ready to do something really serious, but the United States is not.

Secondly, it is too late to forestall climate change. Reasonable people can differ on exactly how much of the world’s warming trend is man-made, but the evidence is that whatever man is doing is piggybacking on a normal warming trend. Earth has seen warming trends before. Vikings used to farm on Greenland, until it iced over during a cooling trend, and now green is being seen again in Greenland.

The evidence shows that man has seriously contributed to this warming trend, but my point is that mankind won’t make the economic sacrifices to stop it, and that even the most aggressive mitigation plans are too little too late.

MIT’s Richard Lester, writing in the Wall Street Journal, estimates that putting “the world on track to avoid the worst consequences of climate change” would require China to cut its current level of carbon emissions in half by 2050. The U.S. would have reduce its own by 25 percent. Since these goals are politically unachievable, the world needs a dual-track approach of doing our best with mitigation, but planning hard for adaptation. In other words, hope for the best, but we better be prepared for the worst.

You can forget about the nether shores of geo-engineering — weird schemes to manipulate the atmosphere to cool the world and other dangerous schemes that could do more harm than good. 

The conference in Copenhagen is going to follow the Kyoto conference into the outbox of good intentions, poor results. What we should be doing is organizing an adaptation conference in some city such as Lagos, in the hot zone where people are too numerous and too poor. We need to start working harder on what we need to do when climate change causes crops to fail. We need to be developing new crop strains that can withstand more heat and less water.

We need to plan now for expanding deserts, warmer oceans, fiercer storms and rising seas. Some island nations are already looking around for new homelands, and the United Nations should be planning now for the necessary migrations away from islands that are already being washed away in storm surges.

Don’t misunderstand. I am all for mitigation efforts, and they should be continued. It will be a good thing if we can learn to use new fuels to stop warming the atmosphere. Actually, we already have such a fuel. It’s called nuclear energy, but the world won’t use it as it should if mitigation is to be taken seriously.

In the United States we have moved from a president who really didn’t want to do anything about climate change, George W. Bush, to one who does. But even President Barack Obama cannot get a Democratic Congress to move sufficiently.

There are countries working hard on the adaptation front. The land-locked kingdom of Bhutan — which ironically has one of the world’s smallest carbon footprints — stands to lose a lot as the Himalayas warm. Bhutan’s major source of revenue is selling hydro-electric power to India, but Bhutan’s glaciers are melting and the Bhutanese estimate they may all be gone in 50 years. The Bhutanese are planning now for a very different future.

Ever the optimist, Obama has said we “should not make the perfect the enemy of the good,” meaning that a little progress at Copenhagen shouldn’t be scorned. But to ignore adaptation in favor of mitigation is letting the good become the enemy of the necessary.