Feeling a bit warm? You may just have to live with it
KING COUNTY, WASH.--From a chopper buzzing the forested foothills of the Cascade mountains just outside Seattle, County Executive Ron Sims describes this as "a good year." The craggy canvas below is a gorgeous bottle green. The lakelike reservoirs are nearly full. Crisp-white snow caps much of the Cascade Range. It's everything one would expect in this cool, water-rich corner of the world. But residents here worry that the "good years" are becoming increasingly rare. According to scientists at the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest has gotten warmer by 1.5 degrees since 1900, about a half-degree higher than the global average. That might not seem like much, but the effects are being noticed here, particularly in the amount of snow in the Cascades. Since 1949, snowpack in the lower mountain range, a primary source of water for the area, has declined 50 percent, raising the odd specter of water shortages in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
The culprit is unusually warm weather, which is melting snowpack and changing the precipitation cycle. More water is falling as rain--and being lost as runoff--and less is falling as mountain snow, a natural banking system that holds the precipitation until the spring, when it melts to fill reservoirs for the dry summer season. "Our water system is based on snowmelt," Sims says. "But we're continually losing huge volumes."
The problem snapped into focus over the past two years, when the state was hit by a severe drought--the kind of extreme weather fluctuation that scientists expect will become more common as temperatures climb. The governor declared a statewide emergency. Ski resorts closed. Rivers and reservoirs fell to dangerous lows. For Sims, the water crisis was a worrisome sign of things to come. "How are we going to meet the needs of people and fish," he asks, "when the snowmelt is going away?"
It's a question haunting the 58-year-old Sims, who has made fighting the effects of climate change a central theme for much of his 10-year tenure as county executive. The quest puts him on the front line of what is shaping up to be the next battle in the climate-change wars: preparing for and adapting to a warmer climate. Even if people everywhere unplugged their appliances, left their cars home, and shuttered their factories today, enough fossil fuel emissions are already in the atmosphere to heat up the planet an additional 1 degree Fahrenheit this century, experts say. In reality, however, emissions are increasing--and scenarios put the likely temperature increases at 2.5 to 8 degrees over the same span. While politicians wrangle over mitigation, i.e., cutting emissions of gases like carbon dioxide and methane, some environmentalists and policymakers are increasingly focusing on the controversial concept of adaptation--preparing for changes increasingly seen as inevitable. Adaptation has long been the third rail of green politics for fear it would pull the focus away from fixing the problem. For many, however, the next debate in the climate-change debate is not why the planet is warming, or if we can stop it. It is this: How do we 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.
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.
This story appears in the June 5, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.