Last spring, members of the South Dakota legislature introduced a resolution stating that “a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics can effect world weather phenomena.” They added that global warming was just a “scientific theory”, implying that it was therefore too controversial to be taught in most schools.
Unfortunately, the South Dakota legislature was wrong. (And not just in their use of the word ‘effect’.) Thanks to greenhouse gas emissions, the world is getting steadily warmer. 2000-2009 was the hottest decade since record keeping began in 1850. In 2010, 18 countries set temperature records, making it the single hottest year ever registered.
Global warming has already altered our planet. The tropics are no longer where they used to be; based on standard definitions of a “tropical climate”, they’ve expanded two degrees of latitude north and south. In vast portions of the Arctic, thin seasonal ice has replaced thick multi-year ice. Bolivia’s Chacaltaya glacier, once home to the world’s highest-altitude ski resort, has effectively vanished.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Even if we take immediate and aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures will still rise by two degrees Celsius over the next century. In the absence of any action to cut emissions, temperatures may increase by seven degrees Celsius or more. (If you’re interested in more detail, the 2007 IPCC report is a great introduction to climate science, as is this blog.) The specific consequences are devilishly hard to predict. But we can expect dry areas (like the Sahel and the US Southwest) to be drier, even as wet areas (like Southeast Asia) get more rain. Sea levels will rise 3 to 6 feet over the next century, and tropical storms and hurricanes will probably grow stronger.
This means that cutting emissions isn’t enough. Like it or not, we’re going to have to adjust to life on an altered planet. “Adaptation” is a catchall term, and it covers a huge range of different activities. Cities threatened by storms, for instance, can build flood barriers and create disaster management plans. Farmers at risk for drought can plant new crops, invest in irrigation systems, and purchase crop insurance.
Individuals and communities may take many of these steps on their own. But social and economic factors often constrain the available options. Poverty, illiteracy, lack of access to credit, and social marginalization can make it harder to handle the effects of a changing climate. What’s more, many adaptation measures are public by nature; it’s hard to build a levy or a dig a well all on your own. As a result, governments and civil society have a tremendous role to play, as does the international community. The people who will be hit hardest by climate change—poor farmers in the developing world, for instance—are also those who have contributed least to the problem. Helping them adapt is a moral obligation.
For the most part, these efforts are still in their infancy. To be honest, no one really knows yet how this should work. Should adaptation be a priority in places where many basic needs are still unmet? How do we know whether or not an adaptation program has been successful? Are there some things to which we simply can’t adapt?
I don’t expect to find many answers this summer. But stick with me: if nothing else, I’ll be asking plenty of questions!
PS: In the meantime, this Economist article offers a great overview of current adaptation measures and efforts!