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Should We Just Adapt to Climate Change?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:44 PM GMT on February 17, 2013

Should We Just Adapt to Climate Change?

I have been invited to contribute a piece to Zocalo Public Square for an event next week in Culver City, California. It is called Should We Just Adapt to Climate Change? If you are local, then it looks like an interesting event to attend with good people. To get more idea of the event from a previous event see Lost in Space. My piece is focused on California, but you will get the picture.

Should We Just Adapt to Climate Change?

The Earth is warming, sea levels are rising, and the weather is changing. We know that the Earth has warmed and will continue to warm due to the carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels—and the warming is and will be disruptive. Five years ago the talk was “if” we limited the increase in the average surface temperature of the Earth to 2 degrees Celsius, then we would avoid “dangerous” climate change. It is now quite obvious that we see large, consequential, and disruptive changes with even less warming—for example in the melting of the Arctic Sea ice. The commitments the world has made have us on a path toward 3.5 degrees of warming or more. If we burn all our fossil fuels, the warming will be much greater.

We have no choice but to adapt to this warming world. We have adapted to changes in the climate for the past 10,000 years—it is something we do. Now, scientific investigation has given us a vision of the future that is credible and actionable. This is unprecedented in history, and it gives us the opportunity to take responsibility and plan to adapt. We know that the Earth will warm; we know it will warm fast. We also know that the weather will change, and when the weather changes the way rain and snow are distributed will be different.

To take advantage of this knowledge, we need to think through scenarios of what will happen to real places. We need to look at the impact of rising sea level on the Sacramento River Delta. We need to focus on how much water is stored in the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada and drought impacts on the forests, grasslands, and rangelands. We must move away from sweeping statements about more droughts and greater floods and instead play out the scenario and the cost of this warmer world to Culver City, California, to the people of California, and to the people of the United States. Then we can decide whether to build sea walls or move inland, rather than patching different strategies together as fragmented responses of emergency management.

Should we just adapt—and not worry about our continued emissions of our energy waste into the atmosphere, ocean, and land? What would be adapt to? We started talking about the “new normal” when we calculated, in 2011, the 30-year average of temperatures from 1981 to 2010, and a new, warmer average “replaced” the 30-year average of some earlier period. In 10 more years we will have the next warmer “climate,” then the next, and the next—the “next normals.” There is no new normal. And the warming will be speeding up. There is no “just adapting” to this; there is no stable climate to adapt to. We must manage and limit our carbon dioxide waste or we will still be chasing the “new normal” in a thousand years.

It won’t just be getting warmer. Ecosystems will have to adapt far faster than they did in the past 10,000 years. The trees of California will die from hot, dry weather. Intrusion of the sea into the Sacramento Delta will make Katrina in New Orleans seem like a quaint artifact of the “old normal.” The accelerated release of methane and carbon dioxide as the Arctic melts will accelerate the warming. The oceans will become acidic, and there will be vast changes to phytoplankton and zooplankton. The oceans will become warm and will release the carbon dioxide we take comfort in their storing. There is no “just adapting.” We will be required to adapt, and the rate of change will make adaptation ever more challenging. We need both aggressive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the future changes, and we need aggressive adaptation to cope with the changes already occurring and those that are in store.

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.