Adaptation will cause problems?

I’m pleased to welcome guest blogger Al Thompson to Climate Chronicle. Al was born and raised in Waushara County and for the last 25 years has worked for an avionics firm in Milwaukee. A frequent contributor to the e-journal Brave New World, he has found himself writing increasingly about climate change. Study of the crisis has led this grandfather of four to conclude that mitigation efforts are now pretty much a waste of time. Things are just too far gone. Instead, he believes humanity should throw most of its resources into adaptive measures. In this carefully reasoned essay, Al critiques some of the adaptive measures proposed by others. 

Adaptation to atmospheric conditions occurs at different time scales. For example, one may watch television before one retires at night to learn the weather forecast for the following day—so that one can plan how one will adapt to the atmospheric conditions expected for the next day:  What weight of clothing to wear, whether one will need to wear a jacket (and, if so, what weight), whether one will need to carry an umbrella, etc.

What I have just referred to is a very short time scale. A longer time scale would involve purchasing or renting housing—not just as a locale for certain of one’s activities, but for protection from precipitation and temperature conditions (if, i.e., the housing is supplied with a furnace and/or air conditioning).

Climate is a concept that is losing its referent.

On a day-to-day basis it may be difficult to determine how one will adapt to weather conditions the next day—which is why one watches, or listens to, weather reports.  On an annual basis, however, there has been more predictability in the seasons—which fact has made the concept “climate” a meaningful one. In recent years, however (2012 being an excellent example), “climate change” has become noticeable—and notable. In fact, what research regarding “climate change” suggests is that “climate,” as a concept is losing its referent (i.e., that to which it refers). That is, the referent (in this case a complex of atmospheric conditions) is changing in a way that is making the very concept “climate” ever more meaningless.

Why claim that? What “global warming” involves is not just a trend, from a global standpoint, in an increase in the global mean temperature, but weather conditions that are increasingly abnormal:  Erratic, and therefore more and more unpredictable. That fact is my basis for saying that “climate” is fading away as a meaningful concept—so that “climate change” itself is a misleading term (which is why, in an earlier essay, I suggested “trendular atmospheric depatternization”—TAD—as a substitute).

With TAD we have a still different—a longer—time scale, from an adaptation standpoint, and if we are thinking about how we will adapt to TAD, we may have in mind a period of time down the road 20 years or more, and would need to ask ourselves:

  • Can I adapt on an in situ basis (i.e., one not requiring that I move), and if so, specifically what do I need to do to adapt to the atmospheric situation that I anticipate at that future period of time?
  • If I will need to move (because, e.g., I live near the coast, and the ocean will be rising), where should I move, and what sorts of adaptive activities will I need to engage in at that new location?

As I have addressed these matters in earlier essays, I will focus on a different matter relative to adaptation in this essay. In doing so, let me begin by noting that there are two different approaches to TAD:

  • Efforts at mitigation—activities having the purpose of trying to stop, or at least slow, further warming by, e.g., (a) reducing the emission of “greenhouse” gases, (b) reducing the flow of insolation to earth, (c) sequestration of carbon, and (d) developing “carbon sinks.”
  • Adaptation—engaging in activities that will allow one (one hopes!) to survive the atmospheric changes that will be occurring, there being no attempt to affect those atmospheric changes.

The problem with mitigation efforts is that we may be very close to a “tipping point”—so near, quite possibly, that the “inertia” present in TAD will cause that tipping point to be reached, and passed, within a few years. Given this very real possibility, it appears that our only real option is that of adaptation. In earlier essays I discussed the matter of what one might do to adapt. In this essay, however, I address a very different matter related to adaptation—the possibility that efforts at adaptation might actually contribute to the problem of TAD!

Will we be able to adapt to atmospheric changes?

Several articles have appeared recently concerning this matter, including Will R. Turner, et al., “Climate Change:  Helping Nature Survive the Human Response,” Bryan Walsh, “Climate Change:  How Adapting to Warming Could Make it Worse.” (an article that draws heavily from the Turner article), and Michael Oppenheimer, “Climate Change Impacts:  Accounting for the Human Response.” Using Walsh’s article as my basic source, the following adaptive efforts can be identified as possibly presenting problems. (I should note that the focus of these articles is on how adaptation efforts affect biodiversity, and that the adaptation efforts referred to tend to be ones directed by governmental units rather than private individuals/organizations.)

  1. The use of corn to produce ethanol (for use as a fuel) has resulted “losses of grassland habitats in the Conservation Reserve program, while some of the fertilizer used to grow that corn eventually washes out in the Gulf of Mexico, feeding dangerous dead zones.” Besides, “there’s growing doubt that first-generation biofuels [such as ethanol] cut carbon [emissions] significantly.”
  2. Although hydroelectric power is a “very low-carbon renewable energy, . . . massive dams can cause ecological problems of their own.”—China’s “massive Three Gorges Dam” being an example.
  3. Las Vegas, Nevada, has proposed “a massive series of pipelines that would bring groundwater from the valleys of   the booming desert city.” This project, if implemented, “will likely damage species and ecosystems in the area.”
  4. Stressed regions such as southern Africa “may experience substantial declines in crop productivity in just a few decades.” And as “existing farmlands dry up, refugees will seek to colonize wild territories—seriously impacting biodiversity as protected areas are converted into cropland.” Unfortunately, “much of that new land—like high-elevation areas of East Africa and parts of western Russia—are biodiversity hotspots.
  5. As sea levels rise, people living in coastal areas will be forced to move inland. Unfortunately, when “people migrate away from the coasts to escape the rising seas, expect them to use those forests [in the areas into which they are likely to move] for fuel and clear them for farming.  That could be devastating for biodiversity—nearly half of the Alliance for Zero Extinction hotspots exist within this zone.”
  6. With the melting of Arctic sea ice, new shipping lanes will be opened, and this will “increase the possibility of expanded offshore oil and gas exploration. The far North has been largely untouched by human beings—the presence of heavy shipping and energy infrastructure could wreak havoc on wildlife that will already be coming under threat directly from warmer temperatures. And that’s without a devastating oil spill.””Plans for adaptation should be looking down the road to a period 20 years or more into the future.”

Walsh concludes his discussion by stating:  “The lesson here isn’t that human beings can’t adapt to climate change without adding to the destruction created by . . . climate change. It’s that adaptation will only work if it’s well-planned for the long-term, and if it takes into account impacts on wildlife and nature as well as on human beings . . . .” Walsh then quotes from the Turner et al. article:  “Increased research focus on the indirect effects of climate change, coupled with expanded support for biodiversity conservation, will ultimately lead to better policies and programs dealing with global climate change.”

Some comments:

  1. As I suggested earlier, use of the term “climate change” suggests that what will be happening is that there will still be climates, but that climatologists will need to re-make their maps periodically to show how the positions of climate regions have shifted. Such a suggestion ignores the fact that one of the more important features of what will be occurring is increased variability in atmospheric conditions for any given location—so that a point will be reached where no areas will even have a “climate”! This will present severe problems for anyone trying to adapt to changing conditions, for crop failures will become not only increasingly routine, but increasingly severeBecause of this, starvation and disease are likely to become major “cullers” of the human population. (As I have noted in previous essays, British climate scientist Kevin Anderson projects that by 2060 about 90% of the earth’s population will be culled by “global warming.”) There is a real urgency associated with adaptation, and simply engaging in “further research” rather than adaptive actions amounts to “fiddling while Rome burns.”
  2. Note in the sentence quoted from the Turner et al. article the use of the word “ultimately” and the phrase “policies and programs.” The word ultimately suggests that we can approach “global warming” in a leisurely fashion, as if we had “all the time in the world.”  Use of that term ignores the very real possibility of a “tipping point” being reached within a matter of years (or decades, at most), after which change will become rapid—as the process of change begins to “feed upon itself” (i.e., positive feedback mechanisms kick in).

Also, the reference to “policies and programs” assumes that adaptive efforts will—must?—be initiated and directed by (national) governments.  My response to this assumption is that it is unbelievably naïve and foolish, because most politicians seem to be “in the pockets” of energy company executives—whose interest is in more drilling and mining, rather than adapting to “global warming.” Given that governments are not likely to provide the necessary leadership, we as individuals and as leaders of private organizations (such as religious ones, foundations, etc.) need to engage in activities designed to “save” ourselves from the ravages of “global warming.”

  1. Following the quote from the article by Turner et al. Walsh states that “the only problem [with waiting for “better policies and programs”] is that it’s our inability to plan well for the long-term that has led us to the climate crisis—and there’s no evidence that has changed, even as the impacts of warming become harder and harder to deny.” To assert that our current “climate crisis” has resulted from an inability to plan for the long term is to assume that the economic and other developments that have occurred in a society have been done under governmental leadership. Such might be true in some countries, but certainly has not been true in the United States—where economic interests are the dog that wags the government tail, and the concern of those interests has been with short-term profits, Earth be damned.
  2. Walsh’s statement:  “Human influence on the planet will shift as we adapt to warming—and we may end up doing even more damage to the Earth than climate change itself.” The implication of this statement—it would seem—is that we should make no effort to adapt because in doing so we will be damaging Earth—more than it has already been. He can’t be serious in making this statement!  Unless we want our species to go the way of the dinosaurs, it is incumbent upon us to try to adapt to the changes that will be inevitably occurring. Of course, in doing so we should strive to minimize our impact on biodiversity. But given that (per Kevin Anderson) most of the world’s population is likely to be culled by “global warming” within the next few decades, that drastic reduction in the earth’s population will in itself result in a diminishment in the impact that humans have on biodiversity.
  3. Most of the six points listed above concern activities being engaged in either at present or in the near-term future.  Given that—as I suggested earlier—plans for adaptation should be looking “down the road” to a period 20 years or more into the future, I find most of those points to have little or no relevance for the time period of most importance.
  4. Nothing in those comments is helpful for those private citizens (as individuals or leaders of private organizations) desiring to engage in adaptive behaviors. One gets the impression that the authors are neither aware of how serious a threat—and how soon—is posed by “global warming,” nor are aware that they will be affected by atmospheric changes just as much as the rest of us are. They give the impression that their interest is in providing a basis for further research by themselves—as if the situation in a few years won’t be so chaotic that they will be forced to think about how they are going to survive rather than engaging in research! Where are their brains?!
  5. It is perhaps understandable why the scholars associated with the Turner article, for example, have a focus on biodiversity—that’s where their research interest lies. What’s curious, however, is how they can have such concern when their own professions—even their lives!—are being threatened by “global warming.” One would think that they would realize how odd their views are, given the situation that we humans find ourselves in today.



  1. deborah l. brandt

    climate change: helping nature survive the human response? i believe it is more like helping humans survive the nature response. the arrogance of a human mind is astonishing.

  2. Lots of good food for thought here. What especially struck me was the notion that we may not really have a “climate” anymore, because we are losing the attributes of repetition and predictablility. Increasingly, what we have is a string of “weather riots.”

    I think our best hope is to adapt as best we can, on a very local level, by building small, intentional communities that can focus skills on adaptive measures.