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We're Locked Into Unavoidable Climate Disruption -- So, How Do We Begin to Adapt?

Since we've failed to do what was easy, we have little choice but to deal with a much more difficult challenge: finding a way to live on a whole new planet.

Five years ago, at a private dinner where senior members from several major environmental organizations were seated next to her, Beth Raps, a progressive activist from Virginia, began talking about the need to figure out how to adapt to changing climate patterns. Mid-spiel, she noticed something odd. “Everyone had sort of started to edge away from me at the dinner table,” she recalls.

Raps had raised what was then a taboo subject among most greens. No one wanted to mention adaptation as a possible response to a warming world. Not when environmentalists were facing stiff political resistance to setting limits to greenhouse gas emissions. Climate activists feared that if they acknowledged that some climate disruption was inevitable, it would undermine their push for emissions curbs (known as “mitigation” among climate wonks). To say we had to bolster our defenses against a changing climate would be an acknowledgement that mitigation was ineffective, that we couldn’t stall global warming by altering our carbon-spewing lifestyles. Talk of adaptation was seen as defeatist.

It didn’t help that Al Gore had dismissed adaptation as “an obstacle to the correct political response, which is prevention,” while climate skeptic George W. Bush championed adaptation when he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the United States could adjust to climate change and free-market forces would take care of problems as they arose. Basically, the political calculus was totally against Raps.

“It had been so spun that certainly people thought it was a horrible thing when I said I wanted to work on adaptation,” says Raps, who went on to co-found  Adaptation Network, a former Earth Island Institute-sponsored project that served as a kind of one-stop resource center for all things related to adaptation to climate change.

Had Raps been talking at the same dinner table today, she might have found a more receptive audience.

It’s a confirmed fact that Earth is at a turning point in its 4.5-billion-year history, and that we humans are the catalyst of that change. We have so irrevocably altered our planet in the past 200 years that we’ve set off a new geological era, one that scientists are unofficially calling the “Anthropocene” – the Age of Man. The human footprint is writ large over Earth’s surface. Yet at no other time has humanity been so vulnerable to nature’s fury.

The evidence of our power to disrupt the climate – and proof of our vulnerability to that disruption – is mounting. Summer floods in Asia and Australia, winter storms in Europe and North America, heat waves and fires in Russia – extreme weather events directly impacted tens of millions of people, killed at least 60,000, and cost nearly $70 billion in 2010, which also happened to be the hottest year ever recorded. The battering has continued. In 2011, the US alone has been slammed with blinding snowstorms in the Northeast; the deadliest tornado season since 1936 which has cost 536 lives; the worst one-year drought in Texas since 1895; raging wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico; and massive flooding from North Dakota to Mississippi. These events have cost the United States between $23 and $28 billion already.

Apart from a few holdouts, the global scientific community agrees that the growing number of weather-related catastrophes are linked to climate change – the fallout from a warming world. No longer can we rely on the stable climate that has sustained our “good life” on Earth. Bigger, meaner, and more frequent storms, heat waves, fires, floods, and droughts are the new normal.

It is unquestionably time to bring adaptation into the climate change conversation.

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