Embracing the Future Versus Lamenting the Past
(Published in The EarthSphere Blog. Cover Image: Adapting to a Shifting Climate WM House & CF Lovelace; ArcheanArt)
The sign read “Stop Climate Change.” I reflected on the message and pondered the future. Climate adaptation is a forward-looking proposition where vexing issues today are analyzed and future solutions envisioned. At best, the phrase ‘climate change’ embodies the recognition of a present-day reality, but it has often become a backward-looking message as we seek a return to a world that has already slipped away from us. The climate is rapidly changing, largely due to human activity, and there is no realistic pathway returning us to the past. We can only move into the future. Climate adaptation recognizes this reality and embraces a sustainable future.
I am not arguing against efforts to mitigate climate change by limiting future fossil fuel emissions or reforming agricultural and urban waste disposal practices to protect our wetlands and waterways. Working against rapid global warming and working towards environmentally sustainable lifestyles are admirable goals. But the concept of stopping climate change is much like the right-wing leaning MAGA movement in America — Make America Great Again. It is a backward-looking proposal where the best vision of the future we can muster is a return to the past. Instead, we need a vision of the future that promotes adaptation to changing conditions locally and globally.
Climate change is a fact, whereas climate adaptation is an aspiration for a sustainable future. The world is warmer today than it was seventy years ago, and the world will be warmer seventy years from now than it is today. Hopefully, the rate of warming will have slowed. We face a future with a warmer Earth, higher sea levels, more extreme weather events, and disruptive climate drift as some areas become dryer and others experience heavier precipitation and flooding.
The Paris Climate Agreement was a bold vision of the future. However, virtually all nations have failed to deliver their full commitments seven years on. Actions speak louder than words, and this failure to deliver defines our reality. The knowledge required for climate change mitigation is at our fingertips, but implementation is not cheap. The past seven years demonstrated how the cost of meeting the Paris Accord commitments is too high and society is not yet willing to pay the price.
Failure to deliver on the Paris Agreement promises does not mean zero progress. Four of the top ten global emitters reduced carbon emissions between 2010 and 2020 (United States, Russia, Japan, and Germany). The two largest polluters, China and the USA, have mixed results. The USA saw a 16 percent drop in carbon emissions over a decade, but China increased emissions by about 25 percent over the same period.
Thanks to COVID-related industrial slowdowns in 2020, global CO2 emissions dropped from 35.5 to 34.8 gigatons between 2015 and 2020. But the 2021 emissions rose again to 36.4 gigatons. We have seen little progress since the Paris agreement. The only glimmer of hope lies in the flattening of the emissions curve since the signing of the Agreement.
We need to embrace a difficult reality. Aspirations of holding the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees C are quickly fading, and the current consensus focuses on possibly limiting the increase to 3 degrees. But if the Arctic reaches a tipping point, natural Arctic carbon emissions could push us even higher. Earth will warm, and we must adapt.
A November 2021 poll of USA residents by the Washington Post and ABC News sought responses to the question: Do you think global warming, also known as climate change, is a serious problem facing this country, or not a serious problem? A majority of adults (67 percent) said climate change was a serious problem, but this number has not changed since 2014.
The results were revealing, with 95 percent of Democrats affirming climate change is a serious problem, but only 39 percent of Republicans agreeing. Interestingly, since 2014 concern by Democrats increased by 10 percent, and Republican concern dropped by 10 percent.
In a separate Pew survey, 8 in 10 Americans believe Anthropocene activity has created significant climate change issues. Still, only about 50 percent of those polled thought they would need to make personal sacrifices to resolve the problems. Sadly, we will all pay a price.
Adapting to a warmer Earth is necessary for almost every country in the world. But climate adaptation can’t start until people first accept the facts. A nostalgic view of returning to some idyllic time in the past is not a real plan; it’s simply daydreaming.
But not everyone is yearning for the past. Projects are emerging around the world to modify infrastructure and change lifestyles. Floating homes in the Netherlands, raised roads in Miami, and ambitious seawall projects to protect large urban centers are underway. Farmers are changing the crops they grow, and winemakers plan for new, more northern vineyards as regions warm.
Rural and urban dwellers, along with their leaders, should stop debating whether climate change is real; it is. The focus should be on climate adaptation. Those on the active margins of climate change are starting to realize their future depends on it.
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Global CO2 emissions by select country 2010–2020 (Source: Statista)
Annual CO2 emissions worldwide from 1940 to 2020 (Source: Statista)
Nov. 7–10, 2021, Washington Post-ABC News poll (Source: Washington Post)
People around the world increasingly see climate change as a personal threat, new poll finds (by Brady Dennis and Adam Taylor; The Washington Post)