Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is adaptation to climate change really feasible?

The 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.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Nichol Brummer said...

I've read in many places that the heat stored in the ocean could jump back out and hit us later. This doesnt' sound like the correct way to describe how it works. As long as the ocean temperatures are below those of the air, they will be able to absorb heat, and not heat up our atmosphere.

However: the capacity of the oceans to absorb heat depends on how much lower temperatures in the ocean are. And mixing of the ocean is also driven by temperature differences inside the ocean. How more we make use of the ocean's capacity for absorbing heat, the more this capacity will be weakened. If arctic oceans are less cold, that may affect the way ocean currents work, and how they help to cool our climate. And we may e.g. get much stronger El Nino years much more often.

That is not the same as the oceans giving off heat. But in its effect it won't be much different.

Kurt Cobb said...


It is tricky to describe the dynamics of heat transfer from the oceans to the atmosphere. Heat will dissipate from the oceans over time until we reach an equilibrium point between them and the atmosphere. Water absorbs much more heat than air and that's why this dissipation is taking place. Keep in mind that we are not talking just about surface temperatures, but the average temperature of the oceans including its depths. Hence, the delay.

But because water requires so much more energy to raise its temperature, the surface temperature rise on Earth has been delayed as the ocean water must first warm before it begins to dissipate its energy and this takes time, especially with the mixing of surface and deep layers of the ocean.

Anonymous said...

"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.""

Why did the dog owner bite a passer-by?

I agree with your post. The fact that we are a rationalising species as opposed to a rational species is illustrated quite clearly by the deniers arguments. Though it hardly stops there. The first stage of grief is denial, watch out for the second stage. I have noticed though, that there is no rule that says people will all come to acceptance. People can get stuck at any of the five stages for what I imagine to be their entire lives. Bargaining especially seems to be a popular place to stop.


Chris Harries said...

People and governments naturally gravitate to adapting to any particular circumstance. And so it is with climate, much to the annoyance of climate activists who see adaptation policies as a way of turning a blind eye to the more urgent need to reduce emissions.

Rather than try to turn around this natural impulse we've found the bet thing to do is to put it upon government bodies to go ahead and do the sums on adaptation. What would it cost the institution to adapt to, say, 6 degrees of warming?

Having done the sums there is normally only one conclusion, the cost is so burdensome that it leeds that institution back to the obvious conclusion – much better to reduce emissions.

There's still a small problem though: whereas a government can limit harm to to its constituents by introducing adaptive measures, everybody and every nation has to be involved in mitigation for the common good. And this drives institutions to grasp at the straws that they can reach.

One way to help circumvent this dilemma is to discourage use of the term 'adaptation' – because the word itself falsely suggests that we can. Better to use a more realistic term such as risk mitigation.

Kurt Cobb said...

Chris Harries makes a good point about the tendency of governments to focus on adaptation rather than systemic changes and any reasonable characterization of the costs of climate change would surely favor prevention. I'm not sure such an honest tally will ever be made.

I actually favor the use of the words "risk mitigation" since it suggests that we are buying ourselves some badly needed insurance in an uncertain world. In fact, I characterize climate change and resource depletion as risk management problems since we cannot know the future for certain, but we can already see that the risks are great and growing.

As for Andy's disputatious parsing of grammar, "that" can only refer to the dog. If it were the owner, the pronoun "who" would have to be used. By convention "who" is only used to refer to persons.

Anonymous said...

Best article in a while, thank you! I have been pondering the same question. Life on Earth is very resilient and will adapt to climate change on an evolutionary time scale. However, a mass extinction with up to 90% of species disappearing due to sudden climate change wouldn't be unprecedented. How humans will fare in the short run or long run during global warming is very much up in the air (with all that CO2).