Climate Crisis Confusion: Mitigation or Adaptation

I ran across a publication on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Website the other day. It seemed useful on one level and very disturbing on another level. Its title is, “Community-Based Adaptation to a Changing Climate.” [1] The eight-page document by the EPA Office of Policy, describes various effects of global warming on local community services. It also suggests ways a community might “adapt” to those effects in order to better sustain community services. In a number of ways it states the obvious. It could be viewed as an educational narrative for the uninformed. On the other hand, it could also be a distraction from the central problem of global warming.

Suggestions and examples are given for climate-disruption effects on various community resources and services: water resource management, clean air, waste management and exposure to chemicals, emergency response to “heat events,” transportation, natural and environmental resources, and cultural resources. Suggestions are made for “protecting people most at risk” as well as for “comprehensive planning.” For example, regarding “heat events,” the article states:

“What are some heat event adaptation strategies?
• Develop an emergency heat plan to prepare city services for a heat event
• Establish cooling centers to reduce heat stress and heat-related deaths and illnesses
• Provide emergency notification and well-being checks to protect the most vulnerable
• Incorporate heat island reduction strategies – such as green or cool roofs, cool pavements, or increased vegetation and trees – into long-term planning efforts to help lower urban temperatures”[1]

The suggestions seem over-general and not all that practical. No “how to,” just “do it.” But examples of actions already taken by community and city planners are also given, where “climate action plans” had been developed. The question does arise, are such plans realistic? Well, some are and some are not. Of course, plans mean nothing without their implementation. If implemented, would they be enough? These are not easy questions to answer.

To be clear, we must understand the distinction between mitigating and adapting to climate disruptions as they intensify in the coming years. NASA defines them thus:

“Because we are already committed to some level of climate change, responding to climate change involves a two-pronged approach:
1. Reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (“mitigation”);
2. Adapting to the climate change already in the pipeline (“adaptation”).”[2]

It is also important to understand how mitigation and adaptation are related to each other and how they may be mutually supportive or counterproductive for one another.

Deep Mitigation

The steady flow of scientific information confirms the increasing pace of carbon emissions. Many studies, whether they document unexpectedly rapid polar ice melt or accelerated species extinction, foretell dismal prospects for a stable climate. Many climate-driven disruptions of earth systems interact with others. Some disruptions, such as melting tundra trigger others, such as methane releases from melting tundra. Many other examples could be listed, most of which involve interacting accelerated disruptions of natural systems resulting from the destabilization of other related systems. Cascading deadly effects of local and regional climate disruptions on diverse species are now common.

The urgency of taking immediate and major actions to mitigate (counteract) climate disruption is simply undeniable. One of the false narratives opposing climate action is that “we” cannot afford it. Well, “we” cannot afford to not take critical climate actions immediately. The underwriters of climate denial do not want to “afford” climate action. The economic interests of the Koch brothers, Chevron, Shell, BP, and others who profit from the fossil fuel industries, as well as their political affiliates, directly conflict with the public interest (the human interest) in a secure climate future. None of us can afford to live on a planet where the earth systems we depend upon are destabilized.

The science is quite clear; the politics are dreadfully confused. In the present political climate, despite the fact that the plausibility of climate denial is ebbing, the false narratives around mitigation continue unabated. The techno-industrial culture continues to focus on developing new technology to interfere with earth systems. That is, of course, what got us into this mess. Yet we already have the technologies to address the human necessity to come back in harmony with nature. What we lack are the ecological consciousness and political power to reorganize our life-ways to re-establish that harmony with the environment that sustains us.

False Narratives and Stupid Ideas

Techno-idealists are people who believe that all problems of humanity can be fixed by some new technology. Faced with depleting sources of materials needed in an industrial process, they assure us a technological solution will arise. They believe we can invent technologies to use existing fuels without emitting carbon or invent new fuels to do so. They fully partake of the mythology of human omnipotence in confronting the exigencies of nature. But they are wrong. Human survival will depend on our ability to reconnect and achieve a new balance with nature – not extract what we want from it and destroy the living systems of which it is comprised. To do otherwise is to deny our place in the natural world.

Attempts to compensate for carbon emissions by carbon-capture systems are like schemes to block the sun to lower temperatures – both avoid attacking the source of global warming. They are really forms of denial. So called “geo-engineering” is an artifact of the system of industry and capital growth that are the very source of our problems. A fundamental failure of techno-industrial culture has been its inability to grasp the complex-systems nature of nature. That failure is at the heart of a number of stupid ideas labeled “geo-engineering.”

Such ideas are stupid because they attempt to change one variable in a very complex system without any concern for the many unknown consequences of forcing such a change. Geo-engineering is always about fixing the damaging effects of climate disruptions by attacking symptoms, not the cause. The cause is two hundred years of huge quantities of carbon being dumped into the atmosphere. Attempts to suppress any of the effects of that cause will be, even if temporarily successful, futile because they cannot re-stabilize the system itself. It is the exact same failure that so often characterizes modern medicine – symptom suppression by means of very profitable technology while failing to understand the basic process in need of healing. Earth systems are urgently in need of healing. Geo-engineering schemes are feeble attempts to extend the hubris of the waning petro-industrial era.

Under the present conditions, the politically safe focus for the EPA is to talk of adaptation to the inevitable greater disruptions ahead. The EPA is a mixed bag. Sometimes it seems to be in bed with industry. But it has also developed rules for constraining emissions from coal-fired power plants. That is good. But piecemeal actions will never be adequate to address the larger crisis. The problem, of course, is that without a full-scale planetary program of emissions mitigation, climate disruptions will become so severe that no adaptive measures will be adequate to the severity of the consequent constraints on planetary life. That is why adaptations must also mitigate the causes of climate disruptions.

Adapting to what?

Adaptation to climate disruptions that are inevitable results of our past and present failures to take strong mitigating actions is unquestionably necessary (if not sufficient). However, adaptation without mitigation is doomed to failure. There are limits to adaptation – there is no way to adapt to the hangman’s noose. But we must adapt to the conditions that have already begun, at the same time we try to mitigate further climate disruption. We must defend against the threats of drought, floods, rising sea levels, food-crop losses, etc., that we know are coming. The essence of the climate confusion – forgetting the foolishness of the tread-worn denial gambit – is the false choice between mitigation and adaptation. We must find a balance but have not yet done so. As a NASA online document put it:

In the absence of national or international climate policy direction, cities and local communities around the world have been focusing on solving their own climate problems. They are working to build flood defenses, plan for heat waves and higher temperatures, install water-permeable pavements to better deal with floods and storm water and improve water storage and use. [2]

Simply put, such adaptations are absolutely necessary; but they are absolutely not sufficient. In the absence of strong international climate mitigation actions, local community adaptations must do everything possible to solving their own carbon-emissions problems. Local communities must also organize themselves to take strong steps to reduce local emissions even if strong international agreements are reached in Paris this winter. Top-down international agreements will be slow in their implementation nationally and regionally, as well as locally. The last thing humanity needs is to wait for leaders who need to be pushed. The international climate action and justice movement is doing the pushing. Local communities everywhere need to act locally while international momentum builds.

Everyone must begin to adapt to the climate disruption already “in the pipeline,” in any way we can. But we cannot tolerate continued emissions of greenhouse gasses leading to disruptions so severe that we will not be able to adapt to them sufficiently to survive. Nobody will be able to “solve their own climate problems” by adaptation alone. That fact is not mentioned in the EPA document cited above. Communities must make mitigating actions their first priority. We must all take adaptive actions locally that are needed to respond to the climate disruptions that affect us most. But those actions must be taken using techniques that minimize the burning of fossil fuels. That means making major changes in our ways of living.

Adapting to Mitigation

So, like adapting to climate disruptions for short-term survival, mitigation of their cause is absolutely necessary. But most important, the necessity of mitigation is absolutely paramount. Without mitigation, adaptation will quickly become futile. Adaptation alone will only temporarily defend against increasingly unsurvivable climate disruptions. Adaptations must also work to mitigate the cause of the disruptions to which we adapt. That is why fundamental ways of living – including actions adapting to climate disruption – must abandon fossil-fuel energy consumption.

The various forms of climate disruption – epic droughts and floods, rising sea levels, massive crop failures, starvation, migration, and ensuing armed conflict – all interact, especially in their effects on humans. Their interactions further aggravate the problem of human survival in a destabilized world. This could become intractable, particularly in light of the fact that human populations have already surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity. Inevitably, people in many places will be forced to flee their homes to avoid the life-threatening local effects of climate disruption. Without massive mitigation efforts directed at the causes of climate disruption, attempts to only adapt to such disruptions will ultimately relegate humans to a place in the sixth great extinction. Many species are already going extinct at unprecedented rates due to climate disruption. [3] Using fossil-fuel energy intensive technologies to stem the tide of climate disruption would be a fatal contradiction of purpose – doomed to failure.

At this point, we have had tragic decades-long delays in adopting serious carbon-emissions mitigation measures. International and domestic politics continue down the path of complacency with marginal hope for serious international action in Paris this winter. We are already experiencing major disruptions of the very earth systems that are so necessary for local and regional human populations to survive where they live. Compounded by wars supplied with arms by the industrialized nations whose emissions are greatest, the inevitable survival-motivated migrations have already begun. Drought was a major contributing factor resulting in the war in Syria. It also contributes to the conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. When adaptation is no longer feasible, people naturally flee the regions where prospects for survival are hopeless. So far, this has happened primarily in the “belt of economically battered post-colonial states girding the planet’s mid-latitudes.”[4] Only comprehensive climate action to stop global carbon emissions can constrain the coming stages of the climate crisis and the human chaos sure to accompany them.

It would be far wiser for local communities, particularly in the high-emissions developed world, to focus on their own carbon-emissions mitigation measures than to ignore them in favor of adaptations that will soon become insufficient. A delicate balance must be achieved; that will be very difficult. The dilemma is that both are necessary, but only the most difficult combination of the two will be sufficient. Adapting to a world that is very different as a result of climate disruption and simultaneously taking the necessary measures to curb carbon emissions will be the most difficult large scale human effort ever. But it is no less necessary for its difficulty. We must adapt to mitigation.
_________
[1] Office of Policy, United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Community-Based Adaptation to a Changing Climate.” EPA-230-f-15-001. (June 2015) Accessed at: http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi/P100MVEO.PDF?Dockey=P100MVEO.PDF
[2] NASA, Global Climate Change Newsletter, accessed at: http://climate.nasa.gov/solutions/adaptation-mitigation/
[3] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances 19 Jun 2015: Vol. 1, no. 5. Accessed at: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253
[4] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2001. p. 8.

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