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Adaptation and Resilience

Adaptation and Resilience

Veterans Day – a good time to reflect on a friend’s recent environmental summary:

“I agree that burning lots of coal, oil and gas and clearing forests has heated the planet and led to worse droughts and storms. But we can’t stop global warming momentum even if everybody stops burning fossil fuels and starts planting trees today. Changing light bulbs or driving an electric car won’t make any difference, so why bother?”

That pessimistic summary has some science behind it, including a recent National Geographic blog on melting Arctic ice:

“In June, the Arctic ice cap covers around 2% of the Earth’s surface. That 2% of the Earth’s surface… for a period of roughly two months, receives more solar energy per day than even the sunniest areas on the equator.
“….the loss of the Arctic ice throughout the summer would have a warming effect roughly equivalent to all human activity to date. That is to say, with the ice gone in summer, the planet would have an additional heating effect just as large as the heating effect of all human CO2 and other greenhouse gasses to date.
“In other words, the complete meltdown of the Arctic could roughly double the rate of warming of the planet as a whole.”

The Arctic ice cap is shrinking quickly, and the summer Arctic Ocean could be ice-free within a few years, with dark sea water absorbing solar energy which  polar ice  reflected back into space before the ice melted. If that happens, global warming will accelerate even if civilization stops all greenhouse gas emissions. Other projections are less dire than the National Geographic blog, but recent droughts and storms like Hurricane Sandy are shots across the bow.

Achieving “sustainability,” regulating human conduct to maintain equilibrium with natural systems, is a core  goal. But if we’ve already done enough to move natural systems to different, uncharted equilibriums, “adaptation” and “resilience” become relevant new watchwords. Andrew Zolli has written extensively about resilience and has an explanation-apology for some environmentalists’  change in strategy:

“…a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation…. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.
“In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.”

Recent  severe Midwest droughts and storms flooding New York City call for strong action, and President Obama’s “hope and change” mantra, could yet lead to wise adaptation strategies and to resilience education for people hit by extreme  events.  The New York Times 11/20/12 issue has two adaptation articles, “Holding Back Floodwaters With a Balloon” about inflatable balloon-like plugs to stop flood waters from filling underground tunnels, and “Vetoing Business as Usual After the Storm” about building large moveable floodgates such as are already in place for cities such as London, Rotterdam and Tokyo.  The flood barriers’ purpose would be protection against storm surges like Hurricane Sandy’s which flooded parts of New York City.

Earth is constantly changing, and is always within its own “equilibrium,” but many decades of high greenhouse gasses and lost forests is moving to warmer equilibriums fast. If my friend and some climate science is correct, adaptation and personal resilience  have become the top order of the day, not just fighting to slow man’s contributions to climate change. Veterans Day honors men and women who fought even when the odds of victory didn’t look great, like my father and millions of other Americans  who served early in World War II.  We can push ahead on three fronts – acting aggressively to slow climate change, working to diminish  global warming’s effects, and encouraging personal and system resilience –  as ourt thanks for all we have been given.

Image by Alan Vernon “Ice calving from Hubbard Glacier, Alaska 3/5″ via


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