We simply must pivot to climate adaptation. NOW. No choice. Jump in!
Cognitive dissonance has been at the heart of the climate debate for years, or that psychological wall that keeps you from seeing the facts as they are and taking appropriate action. When it comes to climate change, dissonance happens on both ends. Despite overwhelming science, deniers continue to deny, but what is just as troubling, believers continue to hallucinate.
The former insist beyond reason that climate change is not happening. The latter insist beyond comprehension that we can still avoid the dreaded 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise above the millennial average, or the more daunting, yet spot on, 1.5C favored in the December 2015 Paris Agreement.
Last week treated us to a news feast showcasing the second dissonance brilliantly. Most telling was this story Thursday on the launch of Mission 2020, a valiant effort led by chief Paris believer and negotiator Christiana Figueres. The group assures we have until 2020 to accelerate decarbonization and have a prayer of holding to 1.5C and, worst case, 2C. But the prescription is a series of well known steps we don’t a prayer of achieving, given the sheer momentum of the global economy and the time those measures will really take.
So there goes that idea. In fact, the ink on Paris was hardly dry when Figueres and most signers were lamenting that the agreement’s voluntary national commitments will overshoot 1.5C and allow global temperatures to reach 3.5C. Calls went out immediately urging far more aggressive steps to close that 2 degree gap, the difference between 3.5C and the 1.5C. That is now the highly improbable, though laudable, Mission 2020 agenda.
It is also the latest reminder of why our attention must now turn with the utmost urgency to prepare for the post-1.5C economy and society we will have, scientists say starting in the 2030s, by embracing deep resilience and engaging in the exciting Climate Adaptation Economy.
Several other articles last week point us in the same direction. This one from Monday in the New York Times, citing compelling new evidence, says carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are rising even as emissions on the ground are stabilizing. It appears such carbon absorbers as forests and oceans, so wonderful at keeping huge amounts of carbon from spewing upwards, may have reached their absorption limit, forcing us to decarbonize exponentially more than the miracle levels called for by Mission 2020.
Also last Monday, this Washington Post story revealed yet another scientific study showing faster than expected sea level rise, lending further credence to this peer-reviewed blockbuster study last year virtually guaranteeing several meters of sea level rise in the coming decades, well before the end of the century, along with a new-normal era of disruptive monster storms, regardless of what new decarbonization steps are taken under Paris or any other initiative. This piece from Tuesday illustrates where that sea level will take us.
Other studies have established a 10–15 year lag between emissions and temperature rise, which means the latter will happen for decades more, enough to overshoot 1.5C in the 2030s and 2C in the 2040s, powered only by carbon already in the atmosphere, and boosted like steps on a staircase by El Niños every 2–3 years.
Society- and business-altering climate change, therefore, is locked in. As I said in this November 2015 analysis, a month before Paris, companies, governments and families must plan for what is most likely, not for miracles totally unlikely. And today, that means complementing our mitigation efforts with a relentless focus on adaptation and resilience.
Not that we can or should pull back on or slow mitigation. At all. I always accompany the call for more urgent adaptation, most recently two weeks ago in this column, with an equally emphatic one to proceed and even accelerate decarbonization without pause. It is the only way we’ll keep safely within 3.5C, and that alone is a life-saving mission.
But since we can no longer avoid 2C, and given the severe and certain damage from climate impacts beyond that point, the time has come for everyone in the mitigation movement, and even more so everyone not yet in the movement, to place adaptation higher on the priority list.
To wrap up the rundown from an amazing week of news, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has become the leading high-profile figure pushing adaptation among governments and corporations, last week co-launched the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, or TFCD, a CERES-like group to persuade and pressure large players to report their climate risks and adapt accordingly.
That, too, is part of the Climate Adaptation Economy. The risks of inaction are, indeed, high. Lao Tzu said it best: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Changing direction at this juncture means, not just managing risk, but just as importantly capitalizing on boundless adaptation-economy opportunities, as I highlight in this post.
The first step is to break your cognitive dissonance and see resilience as the new game in town that it is. And then to jump right in.