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How to summarize the summer of 2021? I might choose a statistic: Nearly one in three Americans live in a county that was hit by a weather disaster in the past three months, up from just about one in 10 during the same period five years ago, according to The Washington Post.
Scientists long ago predicted that climate change would cause heat waves, floods and storms to grow more frequent and more intense, and the relationship has become much clearer in recent years. But “these events tell us we’re not prepared,” Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, told The Times. “We have built our cities, our communities, to a climate that no longer exists.”
What does the United States need to do to prepare for a hotter future, and what are the limits of adaptation? Here’s what people are saying.
Mitigate, adapt or suffer
Fourteen years ago, a Harvard climate and energy expert, John Holdren, coined a kind of axiom for the three choices climate change posed for humanity: Mitigation — the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions — adaptation and suffering. “We’re going to do some of each,” he said. “The question is what the mix is going to be.”
For years, the policy conversation has rightfully been dominated by the first part of the equation, because, as he explained, “the more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”
But nations delayed curbing their emissions for so long that global warming is now guaranteed to intensify in the next three decades. And that means that mitigation alone, while still as necessary as ever, is no longer sufficient to prevent suffering: As devastating as recent extreme weather events have been, scientists say the next 30 years will bring even more, hotter heat waves, longer and more intense droughts, and more episodes of catastrophic flooding.
In its 2018 National Climate Assessment, the federal government released a sweeping report of all the ways the United States would need to adapt. Here are just four, courtesy of The Times’s Brad Plumer:
Rethink how we farm: Intensifying drought and extreme heat jeopardizes both the yields of crops and the workers who harvest them. Farmers may have to use more precise irrigation techniques to conserve water, relocate production and invest in climate-controlled buildings.
Build for the future, not the past: The nation’s deteriorating infrastructure — its roads, sewer systems, public transportation, power plants and transmission lines — was built with historical weather conditions in mind, so it can’t just be repaired; it also has to be rebuilt or retrofitted for the weather of the future.
Enlist nature to help: Restoring degraded wetlands and expanding green space can protect cities and coasts from flooding, while planting more trees can reduce urban temperatures and protect people from deadly heat waves.
Expect the unexpected: Earth hasn’t warmed this quickly in tens of millions of years, long before humans even existed. Changes this rapid are likely to bring unpredictable dangers, and the more the world warms, the greater the risk of such surprises, some of which may be irreversible and self-reinforcing.
At the moment, however, there is no national plan for climate adaptation, just as there is no national plan for mitigation. Every year, the federal government spends about $46 billion on recovery from disasters — about seven times what it spends on resilience, as David G. Victor, Sadie Frank and Eric Gesick note in The Times. In many cases, recovery money is spent in ways that increase the risks and costs of climate change by inviting people to build and move into harm’s way.
“When communities are flattened by nature, the nation helps pay for rebuilding — often rebuilding the same infrastructure in the same place, a target for the next disaster,” they write. “Redirecting federal money toward resilience rather than simply rebuilding after disasters will be hard. But the longer we wait, the harder it will become as the costs of climate change mount.”
‘The truth is that you can’t protect everything’
The 2018 National Climate Assessment mentioned a fifth major strategy the United States will need to adapt to climate change: Get out of the way. In some parts of the country, particularly along coastlines, many areas will become too expensive or impractical to inhabit; some already have.
“We need to decide where it is in our national interest to be spending federal money, and equally important, where that coastal protection has the best chance of providing meaningful, longer-term protection,” Robert S. Young writes in The Times. “In the many places we cannot protect, we must seriously discuss how we can take measured, gradual steps to move people and homes away from the hazards.”
But the United States has no clear national plan for climate migration either, as Alexandra Tempus explains in The Times. She notes that some 1.7 million disaster-related displacements occurred in 2020 alone, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, but the process is entirely reactive and ad hoc, with homeowners routinely left to wait years before obtaining buyouts.
“Real change — like relocating entire neighborhoods and communities out of harm’s way — would be far better handled not in times of crisis, when the displaced must weigh complex decisions in the midst of chaos and loss, but before a crisis hits,” she writes.
But more proactive migration will prove difficult in the United States, where government is especially loath to infringe on personal property rights. Consider, by comparison, the Netherlands: There, where much of the land lies below sea level, government water boards have the ultimate authority over land use and there is no national flood insurance program because, the Dutch argue, the government’s job is to protect people, not homeownership, from floods.
“If they determine an area is needed for flood protection, its residents must move,” The Times reports. “It’s a different story in the United States.”
The limits of adaptation
Just as humanity’s failure to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions has made a necessity of adaptation, so too, if that failure continues, will it make a necessity of suffering. “There are limits to how much the country, and the world, can adapt,” The Times’s Christopher Flavelle, Anne Barnard, Brad Plumer and Michael Kimmelman write. “And if nations don’t do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, they may soon run up against the outer edges of resilience.”
Some of those edges will be found in the world’s food and water systems. At 1.5 degrees of warming, nearly one billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves, and hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. At 2 degrees of warming, coral reefs will all but cease to exist, causing irreversible loss for many marine ecosystems and jeopardizing the ocean food supply.
On land, farmers can adapt to an extent, but the 2018 National Climate Assessment report emphasized that “these approaches have limits under severe climate change impacts.” Yields for such crops as maize, rice and wheat will be smaller at 2 degrees of warming than at 1.5 degrees, according to NASA, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America, and 7 percent to 10 percent of rangeland livestock will be lost. Even now, at just 1.2 degrees of warming, some farmers in drought-ridden California have found it more lucrative to sell off water rights than to grow food.
Even successful adaptation projects may create their own climate threats:
In Louisiana, the vast system of levees and flood walls that has been erected to manage the Mississippi — and that helped keep New Orleans relatively dry during Hurricane Ida — is also causing the southern part of the state to disintegrate, as Elizabeth Kolbert has written.
As extreme heat intensifies, energy-guzzling air-conditioning is fast becoming necessary in places where it wasn’t, which in turn threatens to accelerate global warming.
Such prospects are why, as Young writes, mitigation remains the first line of defense, even if it has already been breached: “We can build all the sea walls, dunes, beaches and marshes we want, but the problem long-term is not what we put on the ground. It is what we put in the air.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“America needs a climate adaptation strategy” [The Hill]
“40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River. It’s Drying Up Fast.” [The New York Times]
“Heat and Humidity Are Already Reaching the Limits of Human Tolerance” [Scientific American]
“Climate Change Is Already Rejiggering Where Americans Live” [The Atlantic]
“How Ida dodged NYC’s flood defenses” [MIT Technology Review]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what one reader had to say about the last debate: Has Texas spelled the end of abortion rights?
Kathleen from North Carolina: “If this abortion law weren’t so harmful, it would be almost laughable. One wonders if Texans opposing the law, especially its women, may use it against itself by mounting thousands of lawsuits of their own against known anti-abortion individuals — especially the men — and thereby clogging up the court dockets for decades and making them deal with the situation the women are faced with. Like the centuries-old saying says, ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’”
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