Adaptation: A Dangerous Chimera


Flooding in England – from

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” – Rudyard Kipling

Each decade since 1970 has been hotter than the previous one, and the last five years have been the hottest years ever recorded. The signs could not be clearer – the world is relentlessly warming.  Public alarm is beginning to manifest itself in organizations (Extinction Rebellion) and individuals (Greta Thunberg) warning of the looming climate catastrophe and the possible extinction of mankind.

But the alarm has not yet resonated with the majority of people; not only with those who deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but with the majority of people who are concerned but not alarmed either because they have no idea about the mechanisms of climate change, or because they cannot believe that the world we know could actually end. The mind revolts at such a thought.  Surely this is only the stuff of fiction; a plot line for another dystopian movie from Hollywood.

So, we go on with our lives, commuting alone to and from work, buying the latest SUV, waiting in line with our cars idling to pick up a cup of Starbucks or a Big Mac, going on road trips, flying for business and pleasure – all without an inkling of the tons of carbon dioxide we are leaving in our wake and oblivious to the fact that it is speeding the day that our children and grandchildren will receive the letter of foreclosure on their future.

Because most people fail to recognize the situation for the emergency that it is, government and business leaders (the label hardly befits those who lead by following) remain unconcerned. And so, year-by-year, the world demand for energy continues to grow, and annually our fossil fuel emissions hit new record highs. It is no wonder, then, that those who do recognize the scale of the danger we face have begun to shift their focus from mitigation to adaptation. It is an understandable response to the perennially deaf ear turned by the world to their warnings.

But perhaps it is not only frustration that urges them on. The word “adapt” has a reassuring quality to it. The dictionary defines it as “bringing two things into harmony.” In this case, the imagined harmonious relationship is between humanity and the climate that human activity is forging. The belief that we can adapt gives comfort to the mind that shies from a frightful vision of the future.

We will certainly respond to climate change. We have already begun.  From investment banks to insurance companies to the building trades to city governments, planning is now starting to include the anticipated effects of global warming. We will continue to respond in myriad ways. As sea levels rise, we will build walls around our cities; as wildfires and floods increase in frequency and severity, we will make changes to reduce their risk and mitigate their damage; as weather patterns change, we will modify crops to grow in more adverse conditions; and as storms increase in frequency and severity, we will improve disaster response infrastructures.

But if we are to adapt, there must be a stable climate to which we can adapt. Our stubborn refusal to curtail fossil fuel emissions means that there will be no stable climate. It will become permanently destabilized. Volatility rather than reliability will become the new normal for the weather. There can be no adapting to the ever-changing and hostile nature of such a climate. There can only be endless reaction and accommodation.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t prepare. Of course, we should. But as long as we continue to burn fossil fuels, the global temperature will continue to increase with the inevitable results: faster and faster melting of the world’s ice stores which will accelerate the rate of sea level rise; the progressive deterioration of weather systems with more floods, droughts, and severe storms; and the growing degradation of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.  The impact of these ongoing changes includes:

  • the flooding of coastal cities and ports,
  • the reduction in global agricultural production,
  • the decline in international trade,
  • a shrinking global economy, and
  • increasing rates of poverty.

The secondary impact of these developments will include:

  • the collapse of government services in the face of increasing expenses and decreasing tax revenues,
  • social and political instability due to poverty and the inability of governments to meet basic needs,
  • mass migration from the tropics as people try to escape floods, famine, poverty, and general chaos,
  • growing international tensions as migration reaches tens of millions,
  • increasing national isolationism and the breakdown of international alliances, and
  • the increased risk of war, including the use of nuclear weapons.

This stark reality is too hard to bear, so we do what man has always done when prospects are bleak – we tell ourselves stories that make us feel better. We imagine that we can actually adapt to a climate that will no longer be a single climate but a succession of ever-worsening climates. We can’t.  Perhaps we can survive, but even if we do, it will not be much of a victory. A fragmented and impoverished human population, torn by strife, bereft of the modern conveniences made possible by our reckless use of fossil fuels, and struggling to hold on is not adaptation, it is mere survival.

This is not a nihilistic screed; it is a reality check. We must believe that we can survive the coming catastrophe if we stand any chance of doing so, but if we are going to survive, we cannot pretend that this is something that it is not, or that we can do something that we cannot. Our only hope lies in stopping our dependence on fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The consequences of failing to do so will not be ameliorated by using reassuring words like “adapt”.