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Adapting to the Consequences of Climate Change

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.

I don’t often disagree with George Bernard Shaw but I think in this case his argument, like our earth’s resources, may be approaching its limit.

Our progress to date has indeed been led by those unreasonable people who have refused to accept the world as it is and have instead found ways to change it to better accommodate human desire and need. Their stubbornness has created economic wealth, promoted human health, driven technological innovation and generally improved the quality of life for many on the planet.

But now my father’s parting words echo in my head once more. As I walked out the door of my family home to do my chores, his favorite maxim always followed me down the path: “Make sure what you do today doesn’t turn around and bite you in the butt.”

I think we, the unreasonable, through our efforts to make things better have set ourselves up to be nipped pretty hard.

There is no doubt in my mind that we still need unreasonable people. There are places in the world where we need people stubborn enough resist the status quo and the notion that nature will dominate us in order to continue human progress. But I think the hour has come for the reasonable men and women to step up and speak out. We need to recognize what science is telling us, that we are using up all the slack in the system, that the resources we need to produce all the goods and services that ensure progress no longer have the capacity to keep on giving.

What should the unreasonable do when the consequences of our drive towards progress turn around and bite us in the butt? We must seek the perspective of the reasonable.

A few weeks ago I met such a reasonable man. Dr. Juan José Daboub is the Founding Chief Executive Officer of the Global Adaptation Institute. This group of public and private leaders and scientists has taken the pragmatic view that, as tragic as it may be, climate change is a reality and mitigation efforts alone will not solve this problem. We are being bitten. But with the right focus and tools it is not too late to adapt our communities, protect our investments and progress to date, and improve the lives of others in so doing.

These reasonable people have created The Global Adaptation Index™, a compelling online database that summarizes a country’s vulnerability to climate change and contrasts this with its preparedness to adapt to the consequences. It is a powerful tool that illustrates key areas of vulnerability (such as water use, food import dependency, rural population) and ranks the readiness factors that will affect that country’s ability to adapt (such as mobile penetration, political stability, fiscal freedom). By comparing the risks with a country’s readiness to adapt, it allows clear prioritization of the types of investments required and the likelihood of success.

As evidenced by the recent headlines coming out of Durban and supported by the research of the latest IPCCC report, there is increasing awareness that a successful future requires that we adapt to our changing climate. But we cannot wait and assume that someone is going to fix the problem. It is time for the unreasonable people to once again resist, but this time to resist the belief that business as usual will engender the type of progress we expect. The unreasonable people must join with the reasonable and identify our urgent priorities. Mitigation efforts, while important, may take years to have any effect. The key to protecting our hard fought progress to date, and improving the lives of those who are the most vulnerable, is to create more resilient, adaptable communities.

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6 thoughts on “Adapting to the Consequences of Climate Change

  1. This argument for being “reasonable” works only to a point. If we keep piling up GHGs at the rate we are, positive feedbacks and runaway warming will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to adapt. It may then be too late. Without pursuing mitigation as wholeheartedly as we all worked to fight WWII, adaptation will eventually become futile.

  2. I agree with Lou. And not only will adaptation eventually prove insufficient, but it will also prove to be the far more costly approach when compared to mitigation.
    What forms is adaptation likely to take? Hundreds of miles of seawalls to protect coastal cities? Thousands of miles of dikes to protect against river flooding? Wholesale changes in landuse patterns to adapt to changing rainfall? Entirely new aqueduct systems to mitigate against droughts? And what other infrastructure reinforcements or changes will be called for? The list is nearly endless, and each & every item costs significant time and treasure to undertake.

  3. I feel as if several of the above comments miss the spirit of the word adaptation. It is used in this context to gently find wording that brings those “unreasonable” people along with in finding ways to actually do something about it. Adaptation is mitigation. It is simply not sacrificing in order to survive but realizing that the efforts undertaken to prevent loss of resources is one that has been a losing battle. We will never get back to where we were before we started pulling carbon out of the ground. In order to survive we will have to do what we can with what we’ve got. Adaptation and mitigation are not mutually exclusive concepts. It just depends on your frame of reference, your starting point – can we heal the damage we’ve done? Or is it time for triage and sacrifice? I hope it’s the former but adaptation speaks to the latter and therefore there is nothing wrong with a pessimistic frame of reference to start from.

  4. I fully support Gary’s point and I am sure that he is not talking about eliminating the current mitigation tactics that are being put in place every day. Part of adapting is using less energy and finding alternatives to what we already have. As Gary stated, mitigation is not enough, and surely adaptation is not enough either. We need to find multiple methods of living sustainably on the earth. I am glad to see this view point being taken as I know many others with this same opinion. I will be passing this on to my fellow classmates.

  5. Adaptation is not mitigation, and it seems clear from the article that Gary never intended the two terms to be equal, or even related. Indeed, he states “mitigation efforts alone will not solve this problem … it is not too late to adapt our communities, protect our investments and progress to date”. And again at the end: “Mitigation efforts, while important, may take years to have any effect. The key to protecting our hard fought progress to date, and improving the lives of those who are the most vulnerable, is to create more resilient, adaptable communities”.

    To me, this implies that he meant ‘mitigation’ to mean the reduction of anthropogenic GHG contributions, and ‘adaptation’ to mean the process of learning to live with the climatic consequences of the (unmitigated) anthropogenic influence.

    I agree that both approaches will be needed, especially in the short term when mitigation has barely begun while the climatic responses have already started taking hold. But I stand by my belief that the short-term adaptation that is required should not distract us from pursuing the only viable long-term solution to the problem: mitigation of our climate influences as fast as is humanly possible. Any lesser, or alternative, approach will cost far too much to be even remotely palatable – too much in terms of economic impacts, money, human displacement, potential future conflicts over shifting resources, etc.

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