Adaptation: The most urgent response to climate change

Fargo sandbags-768

Sandbags are stacked at the Fargo Dome in Fargo, N.D. as the Red River flooded in 2009. With society unwilling to stem emissions or stop climate change, some argue that we have little choice but adapt to its impacts. Photo by David Kohlmeyer/flickr.

April 3, 2013

High school students in Bozeman, Mont., make the case in an international debate contest that adaptation is the only viable response to climate change. Mitigation, they argue, requires an effort too grand in scale and constrained by time to for society to achieve.

Also from the Daily Climate: Geoengineering: The necessary answer to climate change

By Andrew Scherffius and Augustus Boling
Bozeman High School
For the Daily Climate

Editor's note: Each year, the Bickel & Brewer/NYU International Public Policy Forum directs a policy position at high schools worldwide for debate, pro or con. This year, organizers issued a climate-related challenge: "Resolved: Adaptation should be the most urgent response to climate change." 213 teams from 34 states and 29 countries responded, each writing 2,800-word essays making the case for their position. The Daily Climate has excerpted two essays that survived the first round. The IPPF World Champion will be named on April 13, following oral debates in New York City.

BOZEMAN, Mont. – We live in a world that is never far from the brink, a world where, unfortunately, constant action is the only thing keeping many potential cataclysms at bay. Such tireless efforts are not always enough, and many challenges require even greater attention. Such is the case with climate change. 

We are stuck with the effects we’ve made for ourselves, and we’re going to have to bear them out. Period.

The increasingly dire situation, one that humanity is only now just learning to cope with, has made one thing clear: we must value adaptation as our first and foremost response to climate change. The other option, mitigation, is simply too grand in scope and too constrained by time. Successful adaptation efforts, which are currently being widely practiced, should be our highest priority.

When discussing climate change, the first thing that should be clear is the impractical nature of pure mitigation; it is an unfeasible undertaking for an apathetic species, and the deadline is too imminent. We can’t afford to stumble in our efforts, but the sad truth is that we already have. Political dissension hinders efforts greatly, and the leviathan of world government is slow to move. This has created a growing pessimism within the scientific community, with the Guardian reporting that almost nine out of 10 climate scientists don’t believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2º Celsius will succeed. 

Stuck with the effects

This statistic makes the point utterly clear: It’s already too late to prioritize mitigation; we’ve failed to seize the opportunity. We are stuck with the effects we’ve made for ourselves, and we’re going to have to bear them out. Period. 

If we can alter and adapt our civilization to be compatible with a changing world we will then have an opportunity to begin the long process of mitigation in safety.

It is important to understand what exactly we will soon be forced to adapt to. One significant example is an increase in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. Another quite obvious effect of global warming is wildfires. And yet another participator in the parade of disasters is a new generation of stronger, more dangerous hurricanes. Combined with other calamities, we find ourselves in a two-front war: Fire and heat that ravage inland communities, and massively destructive storms that damage coastal zones.

In spite of such a muddle, there is hope. Since it has been established that we can neither stop nor avoid the effects of climate change, the clear strategic decision is to adapt and potentially use climate change to our advantage. If we can alter and adapt our civilization to be compatible with a changing world we will then have an opportunity to begin the long process of mitigation in safety.

Governments adapting

Many national governments are adapting to climate change. 

Australia has created an adaptation program to “help Australians better understand climate change, manage risks, and take advantage of potential opportunities;” In Nigeria, state and local governments are developing action plans for high-risk urban areas, while the federal government is seeking to expand forests by reducing deforestation and wood fuel demand; in Mali, significant efforts are being made to conserve water resources, as well as create usable mechanisms to track the development of climate change. 

We can continue on our present course, apathetically letting the world go over the edge, or we can try in vain to slow or stop the momentum of 200 years of industry. These are both unthinkable however.

On the community level, many towns and cities have autonomously created action plans to prepare for the adverse effects of climate change. The city of Portland has created perhaps the most comprehensive plans to date. In South Africa, the city of Cape Town has created a similar citywide strategy. They divide their community into eight sectors then highlight four to six different methods for adapting that sector. Globally, the number of cities which have undertaken such assessments and plans is unfathomable. Where there is proper funding, these projects have shown giant success in alleviating impacts and, oftentimes, have taken advantage of changes climate change has created. 

Little needs to be said about the state we find ourselves in. We can continue on our present course, apathetically letting the world go over the edge, or we can try in vain to slow or stop the momentum of 200 years of industry. These are both unthinkable however, and thus we must choose the third option: adaptation. If we're willing to commit to the task at hand, then humanity may pursue prosperity in a completely different paradigm. 

© Andrew Scherfflus and Augustus Boling, 2013, and used with permission. 

All rights reserved.

Andrew Scherffius and Augustus Boling are both seniors at Bozeman High School in Bozeman, Mont. and members of the school's debate team. Coach James Maxwell assisted them with this essay.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Views expressed are those of the authors and not the Daily Climate. Email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org.

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