To Write about climate change, sometimes on a daily basis, be prepared for writing about one of the most depressing topics there is…I got good training in writing about bears…but I have to admit that I see ambivalance about climate change every day and it sure is frusrating.
When you write about climate change for a living, you have to accept that it comes with a serious occupational hazard. The facts you bring back tend to be depressing, and people don’t like to be depressed. They want uplifting news. A trip I took to Peru last summer for OnEarth was a classic example of the dilemma: grinding poverty, crippling water shortages, life-giving glaciers disappearing before your eyes… Where was the good news?
I brooded about this for months, to the point where I found a pretext to go back to Peru for a few days, mainly so I could spend a bit more time with a glaciologist I’d met there named César Portocarrero. What had really been nagging at me, to be honest, was the suspicion that the good news had been there all the time, hidden in plain sight. In Peru, as in many countries around the world, I’d seen people adapting creatively to climate change, because the daily evidence of their senses tells them that it is an inescapable reality. For many environmentalists, however, this has meant facing up to a deeply inconvenient truth, a threat to the mantra that nothing but the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions will do, and that adaptation is an admission of defeat.
Climate deniers and skeptics have always been quite happy to sneer at the idea that we should invest in adapting to global warming; after all, if it isn’t real, why bother adapting to its effects? Others, like the idiosyncratic Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, say that adaptation should be taken out of the climate debate; it’s just another word for responding to poverty. What bothers me more is the hostility toward climate adaptation from some of the smartest environmental commentators around, such as Joe Romm, who calls it a “cruel euphemism” for suffering. People can only “adapt” to global warming, Romm says, in the sense that people in Darfur have “adapted” to war and genocide, or the victim of an avoidable heart attack “adapts” by having heart surgery that might kill him.
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The antipathy of people like Romm was fueled by a string of economic analyses published in 2008, all of which showed that the cost of curbing greenhouse gas emissions was much lower than we had imagined. First came the British government’s Stern Review, which concluded that stabilizing CO2 emissions by 2050 would cost only about 1 percent of global GDP — a “significant but manageable” amount (the world currently spends three times as much on risk insurance). The International Energy Agency produced similar numbers, and the McKinsey Global Institute went further: stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million by 2030 would have a “net cost near zero.”
I have no quarrel with those studies; they make a persuasive case, and I wouldn’t deny for a second that unless we radically curb emissions the game will ultimately be lost. The problem is not the “invest in mitigation” part; it’s the corollary: “…and therefore don’t invest in adaptation.”
To someone whose daily life is defined by ice, water, soil, and weather — for example, a peasant in Peru or Bangladesh — this zero-sum argument about how governments should spend trillions of dollars feels like a remote and abstract parlor game. And the implied message that said peasant should continue to grind along in the same old way for another 20 or 40 years while we get emissions under control is where abstract starts looking a lot like callous.
On my return to Peru, I met up with César Portocarrero in Caraz, a small town high in the Andes. It’s a sleepy place with a lost-in-time quality, yet climate change is a palpable presence in everyday life. Thanks to the mayor — an old friend and tennis buddy of César’s — there are several large murals in the streets lamenting the disappearance of the glaciers of the surrounding Cordillera Blanca and urging everyone to play their part in protecting the environment.