This week the National Climate Data Center confirmed what most had long believed: 2012 was the warmest year on record for the United States. Ever. And not just a bit warmer: a full Fahrenheit degree warmer than in 1998, the previous high. In the land of climatology statistics, that is immense. In the understatement of one climate scientist, these findings are “a big deal.”
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Almost every news story reporting on this juxtaposed the record with a series of disruptive climate events, ranging from the drought that covered much of the United States farmland and punctuated by Hurricane Sandy in its tens of billions of dollars of devastation. Many also pointed out that eight of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 1990 (though it should be noted that official records only extend to 1895). Not surprisingly, these observations were almost always followed by warnings of more warming and substantially worse consequences to come.
But what if climate change isn’t the disaster we fear but instead one more obstacle that humans can meet, one that may spur innovation and creativity as well as demand ever more resilience? What if it ultimately improves life as we know it?
That the planet is getting warmer there should be no doubt. Nor should there be much question about the role of human development, industrialization and carbon emissions as a causal factor. Of course, many do still question these changes, or at least to what degree they have been triggered by human activity, and yes, there have been wide climate swings throughout the millennia. Still, the preponderance of current scientific knowledge maintains that warming is accelerating and that fossil fuels and various effluvia of modern industry are a cause.
It does not, however, follow that the future arc of these changes is disastrous. Unwanted, unwelcome and uneasy? For sure. Potentially lethal? Yes. But so much of the debate over the past 30 years has been over what is causing climate change, and how to prevent more change from happening, that comparatively less energy has been spent on adapting to it. In part, those most focused on these issues, from Green parties in Europe to environmentalists in the United States, have often believed that any discussion of mitigating the effects of climate change is tantamount to giving up on preventing it. That has led to a jeremiad mentality, epitomized by Al Gore and the scathing warnings of what lies ahead in his hugely influential 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.
The advantage of that approach was that it alerted many to the dangers of climate change; the disadvantage was that it scared people into passivity and closed fruitful avenues to policies focused on mitigating the effects rather than halting the trend. And while halting the trend might have been feasible (just) 20 years ago, the most we can achieve now is to reduce the rate and intensity of climate change until the world’s population levels off sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Activists can and should still focus on reducing global emissions, but not at the expense of answering how we will live with the change.
Perhaps in recognition of the need of a new paradigm, “resilience” has quietly become a buzzword. The ever provocative Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his recent book Antifragile argues that only organizations capable of meeting crises can survive crises. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, counties and cities in the Northeast have been contemplating how best to prepare for future weather shocks. That has led to renewed appreciation for cities, such as Rotterdam, that have long undertaken environmental planning organized around the notion that floods will happen no matter what humans do. The challenge isn’t to find a way to prevent floods; it’s to find a way to live with them.
The two approaches could not be more distinct: One warns of catastrophe and attempts to steer away from it. One pragmatically accepts that some undesirable things will happen no matter what. Rotterdam has thus focused both on preventing as much flooding as possible (floodgates) and on urban infrastructure that is as flood-resistant as possible: power grids that have dispersed nodes, waterproof insulation, even floating parts of the city in case of truly severe inundation.
Far from signaling a resignation to climate change, resilience, adaption and mitigation all shift energy away from holding back the tide and toward innovation and creativity in meeting it. In fact, those are precisely what have fueled whatever positive development there has been in human history (and admittedly, some negative as well). The theoretical physicist David Deutsch points out that pessimism about future trends is actually more “blindly optimistic” than genuine optimism because it assumes that we can know the future.
But as has been all too evident recently, we cannot. Instead, the only source of progress has been the ability of humans to learn and adapt. While climate change could spell death and harm to low-lying areas around the world as the seas rise, life 30,000 years ago was hardly hospitable. Yet people managed to create viable living conditions anyway. Necessity demanded it, and our ability to create and innovate made it possible.
That approach is imperative not just for climate change but for multiple areas that generate such anxiety about the future. The imbalance of the financial system? Those are only made worse by the false belief that a system could be created where such risks don’t exist; better to find ways to mitigate the risks of a global interconnected financial system than seek, Don Quixote-like, ways to eliminate risk. The dysfunction of Washington? Better to find ways to meet collective needs that don’t depend on the federal government (or any large central bureaucracy) than pile all those needs onto one large, unwieldy and cumbersome institution and hope for the best. Our response to climate change is only one way that we have chosen the path of pessimism instead of a path of innovation. How we meet this challenge will say much about how we meet all of our challenges.
PHOTO: The Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background, is seen from Ryder Bay near Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica, in this NASA handout photo. REUTERS/British Antarctic Survey/Handout