Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Climate Change Part 21: Adaptation

Note: This program first aired April 11, 2015.
We’ve done it, we’ve reached the last episode in the Climate Change series. Over the past several months we’ve looked at the mechanics of the climate system, how the various components are changing, the sources of the carbon, the current and possible future impacts, and what to do about it.

For a time it seemed like all the talk was about mitigation, how do we stop climate change? How can we prevent this from happening? And that conversation is still happening the world over. Along with this a second conversation has emerged, one that acknowledges that some degree of change is now virtually certain, and that much of the disrupted weather the world has recently experienced is in fact the leading edge of this climate change trend. This conversation is not about giving up and giving in, or throwing up our hands and joyriding in the SUV because we’re already screwed, its about getting real about the fact that things in the climate system are in motion and changes are already happening, even if we stop emitting fossil carbon tomorrow.  The question then isn’t, how can we stop it, because there is a certain amount of change already embodied in the climate system that we can’t, the question is how do we prepare for what will happen along side our efforts to prevent additional change? Preventing further change is called mitigation and preparing for the inevitable embodied changes is called adaptation.

Adaptation can be a hard sell in the climate change movement, because it implies a bit of defeat and acceptance, and because there is nothing sexy about counting culverts and storm drains. Assessing and improving infrastructure is a big part of the adaptation movement. We already know that changes to precipitation patterns (either not enough or too much all at once) are among the first wave of climate related impacts we are experiencing. Droughts get all the attention, because they are devastating in their own right, and because much of our food supply stands to be disrupted by water shortages. But look at what happened to Boston this winter, snow literally disabled a major US city. Look at what happened to lower Manhattan during the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. And of course, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Between extreme precipitation events and sea level rise exacerbated storm surge, the threat that flooding disables critical infrastructure is painfully real. Here in rural Maine, there are lots of roads, and sometimes only one road to a place. If that road gets washed out, all the people on the other side are cut off from services they may need. Infrastructure doesn’t just mean keeping track of the New York City subway system, it also means the roads that supply our food and fuel systems and are the conduits for emergency services. Over the past couple of years here in Maine we have become well aquainted with extended periods with out electricity; now picture that week without power being totally cut off from town by an impassible washed out road. No way to get fuel for your generator, no way to get help if you need it. Suddenly making sure the culverts are clear and of sufficient size doesn’t seem like a crazy idea after all.

Adaptation planning draws heavily from the disaster preparedness community, and if we have learned anything from the natural disasters of the past decade, it is that we are never really prepared. This has to happen at the community level; which roads are the most likely to flood? What areas will be inundated by a storm surge? Where do the elderly people live who will need transportation to a cooling center during a heat wave? What location do we have in town to set up said cooling center? How do we get the word out about where to go? These conversations require all of us, and if anything good comes out of climate change, it is this.

In closing, I leave you with a quote from Russell Libby, the late director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and accomplished poet. This is from his poem A Pledge. It sums up the adaptation sentiment perfectly, and as the world around us changes and perhaps grows unrecognizable, keep it in your heart to help you stay focused when things get overwhelming. It goes like this, “if the world we know is to crumble, the world we rebuild can only start where we are”. Isn’t that perfect? It is only in our own communities where our real work starts. So start it now.

Thanks for bearing with this for 21 long weeks. It’s an important topic, perhaps the most important topic of our time, and I hope it was as helpful to you to hear it as it was for me to write it. 


Still haven’t heard enough? Check out UMaine Climate Change Institute Director Paul Mayewski’s take on why Mainers should care about a warming Arctic: http://climatechange.umaine.edu/news/article/2015/04/06/5_reasons_maine_should_care_about_warming_arctic_waters__p_mayewski

Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange: http://www.cakex.org/