Is adaptation to climate change really feasible?

January 26, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe climate change denial lobby likes to use a variant of the dog bite defense. Perhaps you’ll recall the joke about the owner of a dog that bit a passerby. Defending himself in court, the owner says: "My dog doesn’t bite. It wasn’t my dog. And furthermore, I don’t have a dog."

In similar fashion the climate denial lobby tells us: "Climate change is actually good for us. If it does cause problems, they won’t be that bad and we should just adapt. And furthermore, there is no climate change."

The final argument has been increasingly difficult for the climate denial lobby to maintain, and many there have given up on it. And, the denialists have pretty much given up on the idea that climate change is good for us. So, they’re down to arguing that it won’t be that bad and we should just adapt.

In recent months this argument–which the denialists thought might only be tested far into the future–is taking a thumping. It’s taking a thumping because climate change is moving so fast and its consequences becoming so devastating that it’s hard to see how we are going to adapt to it easily and cheaply or, in some cases, even at all.

A recent harbinger of that speed is the Pine Island Glacier in the Antarctic which separated from the continent last year and which scientists recently discovered is melting "irreversibly." This one glacier will contribute up to one centimeter in sea level rise over the next 20 years. That doesn’t sound like much. But it is a huge amount of water from just one source. And, of course, it is emblematic of what is happening to nearly all glaciers and ice sheets throughout the world. Given the quickening pace of melting, their combined input of water into the sea could surprise us with a higher than expected rise in sea levels soon.

In California last year was the driest on record and continues a pattern of low rainfall that has resulted in the state’s governor declaring a drought emergency. The declaration will allow affected areas to receive federal aid. The dryness has also spawned wildfires and has firefighters saying that such conditions are only seen in midsummer, not in the middle of the rainy season.

Australia is, of course, in the middle of its summer and the season has been a disastrous one. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F have become routine. Lack of moisture has brought raging wildfires all across the affected areas.

Beyond this, volatile world food prices in the last decade have been, in part, due to extreme weather, a predicted result of global climate change. Droughts and floods have destroyed crops routinely and sent prices soaring. Whether farmers can adapt quickly enough to the new conditions they face is now a serious concern.

The climate change deniers are only right about one narrow thing: We’re going to have to adapt to climate change; at least, we are going to be forced to try. But that adaptation isn’t something that’s going to be able to proceed at a leisurely pace if we expect agriculture to keep feeding a growing population. And, it’s not clear, for example, how California farmers are going to adapt to having so little water for their crops right now–nor how populous cities will be able to supply adequate water to their inhabitants.

It’s also not obvious how we can stop what will be increasingly ferocious wildfires. And, the cost of protecting low-lying cities on seacoasts from increasingly destructive storms and higher sea level will not be cheap, especially if we decide to take such protection seriously.

Now, I say "increasingly" because another 25 to 50 years of climate change is already in the pipeline even if we as a global society were not to emit another ton of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What few people realize is that much of the heat absorbed by the planet is stored in the oceans. This heat is only gradually being released in ways that affect the surface temperature. It’s what scientists call thermal inertia.

So, to use the vernacular: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If this is what climate change is bringing us now, how can we even entertain the idea that we should do nothing to stop it and simply focus on adaptation?

Still, maybe the climate change deniers can throw a few bake sales to raise the necessary money for all the adaptations we’ll be having to make.

Image by Peter Trimming ( via Wikimedia Commons: "English: Footpath (3) 2nd July, and little or no rain for two weeks. This is the result; cracks in the clay soil which were wide enough for me to insert my fingers past the second joint. Further along the path, the cracks were well over an inch wide in places."

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: Australia, California, climate change, drought, sea level rise, wildfires