THE SCOOP on Global Warming ; Climate Trends Are Clear: We're All Going to Adapt to Changing Weather

By Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

THE SCOOP on Global Warming ; Climate Trends Are Clear: We're All Going to Adapt to Changing Weather


Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, and shifting rainfall patterns?

"Climate changes," observes Daniel Sarewitz. "Let's deal with it."

His approach appears at odds with global efforts to reduce humanity's impact on climate by cutting the amount of heat- trapping gases pumped into the atmosphere each year.

But to Dr. Sarewitz and a growing number of analysts, adapting to climate change is an approach that has been overlooked for too long. In the end, they say, adaptation may prove more effective than trying to control emissions in easing the impact of climate change on human activities.

This does not sit well with hard-core conservationists, who, since climate change burst to the fore as a global environmental issue in the 1980s, view adaptation as a form of environmental appeasement.

Next Monday, diplomats from 160 countries meet in the Netherlands to begin an 11-day negotiating marathon designed to write the rules under which countries that ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocols would operate. Under the protocols, nations would be required to cut their collective CO2 emissions by at least 5 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Yet even if every nation on the planet were to ratify and implement the pact, "Kyoto is not going to reverse climate trends," says Sarewitz, a senior research scholar at Columbia University's Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. "Its impact on carbon dioxide is relatively trivial."

"The simple truth is we don't have a way of figuring out how to keep CO2 from doubling" during the 21st century, adds Jerry Mahlman, recently retired director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University.

Based on doubling atmospheric CO2, the United Nation's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now estimates that global temperatures will rise an average of 1.5 to 6 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 10.8 degrees F.) between 1990 and 2100.

Trends in CO2 emissions and their projected effects on climate, Sarewitz says, make a strong case for giving adaptation - from improved hazard mapping, weather forecasts and warnings, and building codes to more environmentally responsible land-use practices - a higher spot on the international climate-change agenda.

The concept of adaptation is hardly new, notes Roger Pielke, who studies the interplay between science and climate policy at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo.

"Adaptation to climate is something we do all the time," he says. Nor would all the effects from climate change be harmful. But, he adds, the issue is taking on greater importance because "losses are certain to rise" worldwide as changing climate alters regional weather patterns and as population and wealth grow.

Indeed, he and others argue that if governments are concerned about an increase in severe weather, they don't need 100-year climate forecasts to prepare, since severe weather, floods, and other extreme events happen regularly enough today. Thus, for example, restricting the development of barrier islands not only reduces society's immediate vulnerability to hurricanes; it also reduces vulnerability to hurricanes decades hence.

Yet even without global warming as an incentive, efforts to adapt based on past experience or even on impending climate swings have a checkered record.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch made landfall over Honduras and Nicaragua. It wasn't the first time portions of Central America had been devastated by tropical cyclones. Yet of the $5 billion in aid that Honduras received, 80 percent went to the towns devastated by floods and mudslides.

The towns "rebuilt in harm's way," says Michael Glanz, an NCAR scientist who last month completed a study of global responses to the 1997-98 El Nino for the UN. …

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