Feeling a bit warm? You may just have to live with it
Stormy weather. The consequences of a warmer planet, potentially, are enormous. Thermal expansion of ocean waters and melting ice sheets could raise the ocean by 3 feet in the next 100 to 150 years, threatening valuable coastal property and the estimated 100 million to 200 million people worldwide who live within 3 feet of sea level. Higher oceans would damage wetlands, natural shock absorbers for big storms, as well as escalate storm surges like those produced by Hurricane Katrina--a frightening thought if global warming is producing stronger hurricanes, as some scientists contend. Climate change might also outpace the ability of ecosystems to adapt. Many of those systems are already stressed by pollutants and fragmented by highways, cities, and ever creeping suburban sprawl. Drier dry years and wetter wet years, with their accompanying severe droughts and flash floods, are expected to grow more frequent.
Adapting to climate change is not only necessary, experts say; it's unavoidable. Humans have always adapted to their environment, from donning warm clothes in cold weather to creating complex drainage systems for too much water and irrigation systems for too little. "If you can be resilient to what you know has already happened," says John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, "you're well on your way to adapting to any changes in the future." But our existing survival techniques will face a host of costly new stressors. Flash floods will require better drainage in cities. On the coasts, artificial wetlands and sea walls may become more common, and development could be restricted or require tougher building codes, with higher elevations.
Promoting common-sense adaptation as public policy, however, is no easy thing, even among those who agree on the dangers of global warming. The idea of adaptation has been around for decades, but talk of living with global warming was deemed reckless by many environmentalists, who feared it would take pressure off polluters. This tussle over strategy spilled over into the highest reaches of climate-change science and analysis: the U.N.'s influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel's reports, dating back to the early 1990s, emphasized cutting emissions to deal with global warming, while ideas for adaptation were muted. The cost of implementing adaptation strategies--ideas like higher bridges and stronger levees--was also widely viewed as prohibitive. Now, however, for a host of reasons, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the pendulum is swinging. "We've realized how difficult it is to cut emissions," says John M. R. Stone, a vice chair for the U.N.'s climate-change panel, "so adaptation no longer becomes a choice. It's essential."
A major conference hosted by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies came to a similar conclusion last year, publishing a list of recommendations on how to raise the public profile of global warming. One suggests raising awareness on adaptation "both because it is warranted ... [and] because it could be a back door to a more reality-based dialogue about mitigation."
So far, the arguments haven't resulted in many policy initiatives. In its waning days, the Clinton administration released a report titled "Climate Change Impacts on the United States," which offered adaptation as a strategy to cope with regional and economic vulnerabilities to warming. The Bush administration has done little with the findings. Rick Piltz, a former senior official with what is now the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, who resigned last year to protest what he called a politicized science program, has accused the Bush White House of suppressing the report--an allegation the White House denies. According to Michele St. Martin, director of communications for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Bush administration has allocated about $26 billion to climate-change research and technology development. A formal adaptation policy is not part of the mix, but St. Martin says that the money allocated for improving infrastructure like flood-control systems and clean energy technologies will reduce the impact of global warming.