ADAPTATION: Adrift in a Cloud of Fantasy
There is virtually no aspect of human affairs that is not affected by the cloud of uncertainty enveloping the earth as the climatic disruption proceeds. The density of the cloud varies with the beholder. At one end there is imaginative and vigorous denial based on financial interests in the commerce of energy. Among scientists, too, there is a range of views from skepticism to hyper-objectivity bordering on denial, to deep concern. Many of these latter recognize that changing climate out from under all life, including oceans, forests and agriculture, presents a lethal threat to this civilization in the short term of years to decades. They understand that the current slide can easily become a cascade into a chaos that will reduce the human population to a fraction of its current seven billion. That slide may be anticipated as the large pools of carbon stored in the Arctic peats and in the trees and soils of the Boreal Forest are mobilized by the warming and cook the planet. The fuse of the potential carbon bomb of high latitudes in the northern hemisphere is now lit. The only sure cure is stabilizing, and then reducing, the temperature of the earth.
The most common response appears to be exasperated cries for “realism” and for simply adapting to the changes as they occur: business as usual. “Realism” as envisioned by economists and an increasing number of scientists asserts no chance of success in abandoning fossil fuels. In that view there is the necessity for adaptation, accepting the changes already experienced and anticipating more. That process becomes the policy, sustained by the hope of muddling through. But the “policy of adaptation” is blind to the lethal feedbacks that take the climatic disruption to new and unacceptable extremes. A limit on the extent of the warming has already been established in the public eye as a two degree C rise in the average temperature of the earth. That limit was a compromise established as a political and economic convenience, not a scientific consensus. The possibility of allowing the earth to warm to that level and not higher has never been established, only asserted on the basis of dreams supported by wishful thinking. The warming that has already occurred is at least marginally controllable by bold action now. Would control still be possible after an average change in the temperature of the earth of two degrees and the Arctic warmed by as much as 4-6 degrees? Almost certainly not.
Despite the success of the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 and subsequently ratified universally, seventeen Conferences of the Parties have failed to produce progress. Progress would constitute effective action toward stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere with respect to the heat trapping gases, especially carbon dioxide. Over the years immediately following such a success, emissions from fossil fuels would have to be reduced further to maintain the equilibrium and, if the concentration in air were to be lowered further as it should be, fossil fuels would have to be substantially abandoned over several years.
While an honest judgment may require skepticism as to the possibility of political action in abandoning fossil fuels, this skepticism should not be confused with skepticism towards the evolving facts of climate science. Basing policy on political or corporate opposition and the myth of adaptation amounts to an abandonment of hope and is a commitment to runaway climatic disruption. The response to such an assertion is, of course, denial: “we shall take every opportunity to reduce emissions and deflect the course of the warming”. Meanwhile, that policy accedes to the skeptics’ position and reduces substantially to zero any possibility of success in deflection. It assures the economic, social and political chaos of environmental collapse.
The only viable stance for scientists and politicians is persistent, relentless optimism supported by imaginative and equally relentless efforts in research and public affairs: insistence that the remaining primary forests globally be conserved as is, that 1-2 million square kilometers of normally naturally forested land be reforested with natural forests, and that fossil fuels be systematically abandoned within the decade before 2020. The transition can be to a new world, one our children can, and will want to live in. It will not be the analog of Haiti and Somalia of this moment, but a variant of new “green cities” and “transitional towns” set in an environment wherein forests and fertile soils and all other life are as protected as in a park. We must envision, design and start building them now. There is no other way.
George M. Woodwell
Woods Hole, Massachusetts