Feeling a bit warm? You may just have to live with it
No big push. Few other nations have done much more, including poor countries that, ironically, have contributed the least to greenhouse gas concentrations but will suffer most from climate change because they lack the resources to ward off disease, drought, and floods. "You would think the governments around the world would be supporting [adaptation] policies," says Vicki Arroyo of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "But so far there hasn't been a big push."
Adaptation is more effective, experts say, when it's handled at a regional level. That's why a growing number of communities, in the United States and elsewhere, aren't waiting. Sims is a good example. "Nationally, you have an administration that fights scientists," he says. "We have said the key is to listen to scientists, not politicians." Sims made good on his word by hiring the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, a group of climate and Earth scientists who quickly highlighted the problem of melting snowpack--estimating that the area's water supply could drop 20 million gallons a day in the future, even as demand is expected to rise. So, in April, the county broke ground on a new sewage plant, to be equipped with a $26 million facility to recycle and purify sewage into water clean enough for agricultural and industrial use, freeing up potable water for use in homes, restaurants, and businesses.
A lack of water could also leave much of the region in the dark. About 90 percent of Seattle's energy comes from hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin, which extends into Canada. If the annual snowpack continues to drop, a greater percentage of the supply will belong to Canada. For now, eco-friendly Seattle says that there's little it can do other than continue to explore wind power and promote conservation.
Green buffers. The heavily forested area abutting Seattle, meanwhile, is by design. While all fast-growing counties in Washington employ urban growth boundaries to stem sprawl under a state law, Sims has been especially aggressive in implementing it in King County--imposing stiff environmental restrictions on private land, like requiring that green buffers remain around waterways and limiting development in some areas. Two years ago, the county purchased the development rights to 90,000 acres of working timberland for $22 million. The trees act as a huge carbon sink, absorbing greenhouse gas emissions but also functioning as a vast sponge, soaking up all that precipitation now falling more as rain than snow while relieving pressure on area levees. Controlling the development rights also means the rivers running through the land will be there to tap as a future supply for potable water.
Not everyone's a fan, however. The tactics are having a negative effect on the region, opponents say, by inflating housing costs and overregulating how owners use their land. Low- and medium-income families, meanwhile, are at risk of being priced out of King County, critics say, meaning there will be longer commutes and greater pollution.
Elsewhere, preparation for global warming has taken lots of different shapes. The fact that many families have chosen not to return to New Orleans, whether it's because of higher insurance rates or fear of a Katrina repeat, is a form of adaptation. New York City is undergoing a citywide review of its climate vulnerabilities while moving ahead with the Staten Island Bluebelt--a storm buffer made of existing and artificial wetlands. In northern Canada, warmer winters have allowed the mountain pine beetle to survive and multiply, resulting in about 33,000 square miles of infected and dying lodgepole pine forests. Foresters today are engaged in planting a mix of trees less susceptible to the pest. In London, city officials are bracing for more heat waves like the one that killed 35,000 Europeans in 2003, as well as summer droughts and winter floods. Mayor Ken Livingstone has released what may be the first adaptation plan for a major world city. Green space plays a primary role: soaking up rainwater and cooling down the urban heat bubble. A planned "green grid" will provide leafy paths for pedestrians, while a new urban park features artificial wetlands to soak up rainwater.
Even adaptation's biggest boosters, however, concede that local efforts do only so much. With threats of global skirmishes for resources looming, advocates are pushing for federal and international action. "What do you do if you've got 300 million people in northwest China with no water to drink?" asks oceanographer and global warming researcher Tim Barnett. "Let them die?" Thus far, leadership has remained firmly fixed on cutting emissions--with little to show for it. Part of the problem is that the push for adaptation policies has not been felt as strongly from constituents and public interest groups. Another is that complexity and regional specificity make negotiations difficult and time consuming. "But that's still a conversation you have to have," says Ray Kopp, a climate change expert at the think tank Resources for the Future. "Because the climate is going to continue to change, and our record on mitigation is not that good." In the end, adapting to a warmer world may be our only choice.