Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Next Global Warming Debate: Adapting to Climate Change

The IPCC report last week pointed out that no matter what we do now to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we are committed to a warming climate and rising sea level for centuries to come. This is because the oceans have been absorbing something like 80 percent of the heat retained in the climate system by greenhouse gases, and that energy will gradually be released over a long period of time. In addition, carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere today will stay there for at least 100 years (if it isn't absorbed into the ocean).

One might think that the inevitability of continuing climate change would prompt a discussion of how to adapt to stronger storms, more frequent and blistering heat waves, longer lasting and more intense drought, rising sea level, and the like. But among many environmentalists, the subject of adaptation is simply taboo. Those who raise the issue, such as the University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, Jr. are considered climate change skeptics, or worse. Now, Pielke, Dan Sarewitz of Arizona State University, and two other colleagues have made a compelling case for adaptation in a commentary in the journal Nature: "Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation".

Pielke and his colleagues point out that in addition to the change that we're already committed to, "climate-related impacts on society are increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies." And "those who will suffer the brunt of climate impacts are now demanding that the international response to climate change focus on increasing the resilience of vulnerable socieites to damaging climate events that — like Katrina — will occur regardles of efforts to mitigate emissions." Overall, the authors say we should be considering policies that would make socieities more resilient to a host of environmental changes and impacts, including but not limited to climate change.

Expect environmentalist knees to jerk on this issue. As journalists, it's our job to observe and describe that jerking, but also to give a fair look at the arguments for adaptation. This is one of the big untold stories about climate change.

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