This is chapter 6 (without footnotes) of my article On Adaptation – a Secondary Concern? published in 2009 in The European Physical Journal - Special Topics, 176: 13-20 DOI 10.1140/epjst/e2009-01145-0. The manuscript was originally presented at the W.E. Heraeus Seminar: A Physics Perspective on Energy Supply and Climate Change - Prediction, Mitigation and Adaptation, 26-29 May 2008, in the Physikzentrum Bad Honnef.
In a rational world, the state of which is known or can be reliably predicted, allowing optimal planning, the right path to go would be to assess the costs of all possible options of how to deal with the future climate change. One extreme option is not to act at all; then society will develop in an unchecked manner with emission increasing freely. Such a development will be associated with costs, in terms of money, life and morale. Another extreme is to reduce emissions; also this option is associated with costs – mostly in terms of money but also in terms of life and morale. The best decision in this rational ”cost-benefit” framework would be that mix of actions that goes with least costs. The problem is that the costs are unknown; everybody determines the costs differently; the knowledge about climate sensitivity, vulnerability and counter measures is not only fragile but also unavoidably loaded with cultural or even ideological presumptions.
But nevertheless – we have to take a decision. How much effort should be directed toward reducing emissions, and how much toward adaptation? The public debate in Germany and Scandinavia favours the „protection of climate“, i.e., mitigation, reduction of emissions. Al Gore declared “we have to be careful not to siphon off political will from job one, prevention, and dissipate it with adaptation”. This decision has the advantage that it seems to be morally superior – everybody feels the obligation to protect the Creation. Another advantage is that specific questions about the implications on regional and local scales can be qualified as secondary. The response strategy is obvious: reduction of emissions as much as possible. However: anthropogenic climate change is ongoing now; it can not be stopped; all what we can do is to limit climate change. The foreseeable future will hardly see any reduction of global emissions – but merely reductions of global emission growth. If we continue with business-as-usual and if no deus-ex-machina technological fit surprisingly emerges, we may well end up with a tripling or maybe even quadrupling of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at the end of the current century. Such levels will have severe implications. Making serious attempts to reduce emissions, we may be able to limit the increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations to a doubling of pre-industrial levels. “Doubling” is to be considered an achievement; a successful limitation. But also a doubling will have serious implications.
Therefore we have to consider adaptation to climate change, not instead of, but parallel to mitigation of climate change. The goal is to limit the accumulation of greenhouse gases to “only” a doubling (or any other achievable significant reduction) and to prepare societies and ecosystems to adapt to unavoidable future changes.
Can we adapt? I believe we can, as long as the changes are not too radical. For instance a melting of the West-Antarctic Ice Shelf would cause very serious challenges, which could hardly be mastered. However, such an event is not probable in the foreseeable future. But what about warming and heat waves at mid latitudes, the spread of malaria, increased frequency of severe flooding, Bangladesh – all these topical and typical examples of imminent climate disasters of the future? Can be adapt to these threats? I believe that we can. But this requires that we begin to better adapt to these threats now, considering also the unavoidable lead times. An added aspect is that climate is dangerous already today, even if, probably, less so than 50 years from now due to the further human interference with climate. The disastrous 1953 storm surge in the Netherlands, is a good example of this sort of “normal” threats – and it is just 50 years ago. The more recent events of various river floodings in Germany (Elbe, Odra and Rhine), the disaster brought out by tropical storms at New Orleans in 2005 and to Myanmar’s coastal regions in 2008 are also in the range of normal, but rare hazards. In theses cases, society turned out to be badly prepared.
A closer inspection of these climate impacts reveals that in all cases climate plays a certain role – but that social, technological and economic factors play an equally if not more important role. Take two examples, heat waves and malaria.
The heat wave of 1995 in Chicago was analysed in detail (Klinenberg, 2002). It caused many deaths. The people died because of heat stress, but they would not have died if the city would have been properly prepared for the situation. The people who perished were not a random sample of the population; they were old, poor and lonely people; they did not dare to leave their insufficiently ventilated apartments because of real or perceived dangers of being assaulted by criminals. In the 1950s people would sleep during heat waves in the parks of the city, but in the 1990s people were afraid of visiting the parks after dark. Other cities are prepared for such a situation; endangered individuals are contacted when extreme temperatures are expected, and brought into air-conditioned shopping malls. It was the failure of social mechanisms, the absence of adequate adaptation which made the extreme temperatures lethal. “Climate” may even serve in this situation as a perfect scapegoat for the city administration – the killer was the heat wave. “We did not make the heat; we were not responsible”. Or, as Berthold Brecht’s Johanna is saying: “The calamity comes like the rain; made by nobody“.
Malaria (e.g., Reiter, 2001) – lay people widely believe that the spatial distribution of malaria a determined by the air temperature. But malaria was common in Europe up into the first half of the 20th century. In wetlands of The Netherlands and England, life expectancy was only half of that in other regions. That people in these regions no longer suffer from malaria is not to be explained by lower temperatures – but by modern hygienical and medical standards and better land usage. The return of malaria in some parts of the previous Soviet Union is also not related to a warming of climate but to the troubled medical systems in those parts of the world. Malaria is a problem of poor people. Thus, not only the heat wave case but also the malaria case demonstrates that the allegedly climatic problems were primarily social problems. Malaria is associated with poverty, and it deserves our full attention now and not only in some remote future, when climate change will have caused additional problems.
Neither malaria nor heat stress is adequately dealt with by reduced usage of fossil fuels and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases; the proper response is to make people and societies less vulnerable to these dangers. This should be done now. If it turns out, as we expect, that these dangers are getting more serious as a consequence of climate change, then the adaptive measures will be even more useful. There is no doubt hat we can reduce vulnerability today. Instead, many people concentrate on reducing enhanced vulnerabilities in some future, and forget about the basic fact that climate has always been und remains to be dangerous, even without anthropogenic interference.
We will have to live with anthropogenic climate change, because it will not be possible to avoid it completely – at least unless surprise technical fixes become available. And we are able to do so, if we begin well in time to prepare ourselves for what may come in the future. Humans, societies and ecosystems have proven to be flexible in the past; they will master this challenge also. But it is prudent to reduce the climatic change as much as we can without compromising other important goals of sustainable and other essential conditions. In short, reduction as much as possible, but only if affordable in terms of social costs.
Klinenberg, E., 2002: Heat Wave. A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-44321-3, 305 pp.
Reiter, P., 2001: Climate change and mosquito-borne disease. Environmental Health Perspectives 109, Suppl.1, 141-161