Stilts & Dams in Your Future? : Ethics, Optimism, and Adapting to Climate Change

What are we going to do? These days, more and more attention is focused on how we might adapt to the impacts of climate change -- actually, not just how we "might" but how we are already starting to adapt. The Associated Press ran a fairly long piece at the end of last week looking at adaptation measures everywhere from Boston to Bangladesh (click on the image for some highlights). It's also something that I've covered here before.

Talking about "adaptation" used to be taboo -- it implied defeat (that we need to adapt to a problem we hadn't solved), and ran the risk of taking attention away from efforts to reduce emissions. Looking back, that all seems pretty naive.

If you ask me, talking about adaptation means that we are finally taking the problem seriously. If you look at most of what passes for sustainability initiatives, the film of"green" is so thin that you've got to wonder what exactly they're meant to accomplish. LED traffic signals (or Canada's emissions reductions targets for that matter) , only really count as an emissions reduction measure in the fluffiest and most optimistic vision of the challenges we are facing. If talking about adaptation means that we are getting too wise to settle for such low targets and ambitions, than I'm glad to see it.

It's also through adaptation that the ethical side of climate change becomes unavoidable: of the between $US100 billion to $US300 billion a year that will need to be spent on adaptation, close to 75% of that will need to be spent in the developing world. That's money that they do not have, for a threat to their survival that they had next to no role in creating. Maybe, as Oxfam is hoping, taking adaptation funding seriously will even unlock commitments to more serious emissions reductions at Copenhagen.

In 2008, Nature ran a very readable (and recommended) Comment piece by three IPCC scientists on adaptation. I'll let them have the last word:

"We have lost ten years talking about climate change but not acting on it. Meanwhile, evidence from the IPCC indicates that the problem is bigger than we thought. A curious optimism — the belief that we can find a way to fully avoid all the serious threats illustrated above — pervades the political arenas of the G8 summit and UN climate meetings. This is false optimism, and it is obscuring reality. The sooner we recognize this delusion, confront the challenge and implement both stringent emissions cuts and major adaptation efforts, the less will be the damage that we and our children will have to live with."


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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