The limits of adaptation

The release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is, conceiveably, the most important environmental issue in the world today.

“Costs and benefits of carbon dioxide,” Nature, May 3, 1979

Actually, the scientific understanding of the dangers posed by rising CO2 levels date back much further — at least 100 years — but 1979 was a watershed year, with all sort of reports and high-level meetings organized in response to the growing recognition that we had a serious problem on our hands. Since then, no major corporation, government or organization can justify being taken by surprise by what’s happening in Houston this week. Eric Holthaus puts it bluntly in Politico Magazine:

We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.

Wagging an “I told you so” finger isn’t very helpful, though, and it’s not Holthaus’s main point. That would be pouring cold water on the idea that adaptation is a viable response to the mess we’re in. “Incremental” tweaks to the prevailing model for civilization aren’t going to cut it. He’s talking about the model in which large numbers of humans pave over large portions of the Earth with impermeable surfaces, not to mention doing exactly that in service of vast, sprawling industrial operations dedicated to the conversion of fossil carbon chains into liquid fuels.

Adapting to a future in which a millennium-scale flood can wipe out a major city is much harder than preventing that flood in the first place. By and large, the built world we have right now wasn’t constructed with climate change in mind. By continuing to pretend that we can engineer our way out of the worsening flooding problem with bigger dams, more levees and higher-powered pumping equipment, we’re fooling ourselves into a more dangerous future.

We will have to adapt, of course. More and more scientists have already turned their attention from the study of climate change to the provision of “climate services.” This embryonic sector is less interested in mitigating global warming, a certain degree of which is now baked into our ecosystem over the next few decades regardless of what we do about our carbon emissions, than in helping communities and corporations anticipate the effects of that warming and minimize the consequences. To be fair, most of these scientists-turned-consultants are also genuinely worried about the consequences and very much support aggressive mitigation efforts; it’s just that they know we are way past the point of no return on threats like sea-level rise, desertification, and catastrophic flooding.

But Holthaus and many other professional observers are calling for much more dramatic changes to our standard operating procedures than just making sure new developments aren’t built in floodplains. They’re talking about abandoning not just poorly-cited buildings, but entire communities. It is really hard to deny, if you want to be honest, that there are portions of New Orleans that simply shouldn’t be rebuilt, but left instead to the mercies of the ever-wandering Mississippi, land subsidence and the rising waters of the Delta. Likewise, the summer homes of the Outer Banks of North Carolina are probably not worth saving. Do desert cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., or Las Vegas, Nev., really make sense in the long term, what with the cost of importing water?

Pretty soon, for some communities, the only responsible answer to the question of “What do we do to combat the looming effects of climate change?” will be “Leave.” No one is keen on going there first, but it is inevitable. Most of us won’t turn into climate refugees, of course. But there will be sacrifice enough to go around, especially if you’re particularly enamored of private automobiles, golf, or beach houses. (Unless, that is, you’re a member of the upper 0.1%, who will be able to hold onto those kind of affectations regardless of what we do to the atmosphere.)

The alternative is to continue to pay the 11- or 12-figure price tags of Houston-scale floods and similar not-entirely natural disasters. And along with the economic costs will come social and political side effects. If you think the country is polarized now, just wait a few years. Indeed, why not wait a little more? We’ve been putting off making the hard decisions for almost 40 years now.

Image: Houston from Landsat

The grid is smarter than you think

The most charitable comment I can come up with for the just-released Department of Energy Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability is the refusal of the authors to use what is surely a candidate for Most Overused Term of the Year: resilience. Not that resilience isn’t important, but it’s to their credit that the staffers responsible for telling Secretary Rick Perry sort-of what he wanted to hear understand that reliability is really what it’s all about.

After all, if there’s one thing that defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear power like to remind us more than anything else, it’s that the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows some of the time. It’s a mantra meant to sear into our brains the idea that renewable electricity isn’t reliable. And as much as the Staff Report tries to skirt the issue by eliminating the findings contained in a leaked earlier draft, it still manages to conclude that the nation’s grid is more reliable now than ever:

Overall, at the end of 2016, the system had more dispatchable capacity capable of operating at high utilization rates than it did in 2002.

The New York Times put it this way:

The Energy Department report concedes that the nation’s electricity system remains reliable today, even with a sharp rise in intermittent wind and solar power, in part because natural gas generators and existing hydropower can easily fill any gaps in renewable generation.

Joe Romm has a good summary of how the authors “botched” their task of spinning the report in favor of fossil fuels, and how Perry manages to misrepresent the findings by recommending subsidies for coal and nuclear plants.

But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of grid management. The fact is that computational capacity to anticipate minute-by-minute power-load shifts has increased dramatically in recent years. Add to that relatively modest growth in demand and the move away from large, centralized sources of electricity in favor of smaller, distributed, local sources, and you have a grid that can easily handle whatever nature and humankind can throw at it. And this is all going to continue to be the case in the case in the future, only more so. Even during this week’s total eclipse, the grid was easily able to accommodate the large drops in solar’s contribution to the network by drawing on gas and hydro.

Technology has a way of creeping up on you if you’re not paying attention. One day you’re trying to unfold a road map, the next the car is driving itself across the state.

There’s no place like home (for now)

The number of people who still aren’t worried about climate change — or the number of voters willing to elect someone who feels that way, which is pretty much the same thing — is still depressingly high. But many others have long since moved on to the practical issues of how to respond to the consequent ecological disruption. This category includes scientists, artists, captains of industry, and those who are actually charged with dealing with the myriad problems involved.

They all seem to be coming to the same conclusion: humans would rather stay at home and adapt rather than move to safer territory. Not exactly the most draw-dropping of findings, I know. But how realistic is it?

PHOTO: Nature Climate Change
(DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE3344)

A new paper in Nature Climate Change takes what could be considered a peek into the future by examining the response of the inhabitants of several small low-lying islands in the Philippines to the kind of inundation that rising sea levels are expected to bring. “Small-island communities in the Philippines prefer local measures to relocation in response to sea-level rise” uses the recent case of earthquake-generated subsidence on four islands on a barrier reef off the north coast of the major island of Bohol to see what people will do when faced with the choice of becoming climate refugees or toughing it out a home. “In doing so, the study will also challenge the notion that sea-level rise directly leads to migration,” write Laurice Jamero and her co-authors.

The islanders, mostly subsistence or artisan fishers, wouldn’t have had to move too far if they chose relocation. You can see Bohol from some of their homes, and there’s a good chance at least some of them could continue to pursue their livelihood even after relocation. I spent a couple of weeks in the region back in 2003, and am familiar with the communities in question, which is why this paper tweaked my interest. Even with water lapping at their doors (see image above), they chose to adapt. Why? Considering how different island life is to that of the nearby larger cities like Cebu, their decision isn’t hard to understand. The paper dances around the answer:

This paradox indicates that, more than environmental factors (that is, degree of flooding severity), the decision to relocate is influenced by social factors, such as the level of human adaptation strategies and the determination of communities to remain in their islands to secure their fishing-based livelihoods. It also therefore refutes the assumption of the mass migration theory that sea-level rise alone could directly lead to relocation. However, it remains to be seen whether there are social limits to adaptation by island communities, what the limiting factors might be (if any), and how these could be overcome.

In other words, people are homebodies.

Of course, things might be different if the seas were understood to keep rising. The strategies they used to adapt to a relatively modest increase (between 20 and 43 cm), including raising their homes on stilts and their walkways on stones, proved workable in the face of a one-time change. But they would rapidly become pointless if the world’s oceans rise as fast as James Hansen and company fear they will. (We’re talking multiple meters by the end of the century.) Migration might start to look like the only reasonable option under such scenarios. Most of these islands are only a metre or two above sea level at most.

Jamero et al. then make the point that it’s a lot easier for rich communities to build much more dramatic defenses, like sea walls, than it is for subsistence fishers to do the same, implying that developed-world responses are probably going to involve even more stubborn refusals to pick up and leave.

Indeed, this is what a growing list of science fiction authors are postulating. Coincidentally, just a few days before coming across that paper, I finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest epic, New York 2140. The novel picks up after two pulses of ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica have pushed up the ocean surface by 15 metres or so, turning New York City into Venice. Eventually, another Sandy-sized storm looms on the horizon and, well, spoilers ensue.

The point is that Robinson’s depiction of a city populated by people who refuse to give up even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds parallels the one detailed by Jamero. I haven’t come across any decent cli-fi that is primarily concerned with migration. (Well, there is Stephen Baxter’s Flood, but that’s a wildly implausible story.)

PHOTO: Brett Duke/ Press

Anyone anticipating that well-off Americans will be willing to become climate refugees is probably fooling themselves. Yes, it would cost untold billions to surround Manhattan with a seawall of any real use. But look what New Orleans has spent since Katrina —$15 billion — and yet “few here are confident the fixes can keep the city dry for long,” according to the Washington Post, reporting after this month’s rainfall overwhelmed the new pump network. And that was just rain; no hurricane required.

The rational response to rising sea levels would be to move away from the coast. Or least abandon communities that sit below sea level. But don’t tell that to the folks of NOLA. Or the Dutch, for that matter. Home is where the heart is. Besides, we’ve already got plenty of cause for internal migration in the form of a low unemployment rate and blue-collar jobs evaporating in the heat of automation, but few Americans are willing to go where the jobs are. This is in part because they can’t afford to live where the jobs are. So why would a migration forced, not by robots, but the loss of waterfront property, be any different?

By the way, this explains the “climate services” community emerging in Asheville, N.C., the one where private analysts use public climate data to help companies and communities make themselves more resilient to climate change. Seems there’s not a lot of money to made telling people where to go.

Not yet, anyway. But all bets are off if the worst-case scenarios start coming true. Deep roots are fine — until salt-water intrusion begins to rot them, that is.


An Inconvenient Review


Eleven years ago David Guggenheim and Laurie David managed to turn a documentary about a most unlikely subject — a slide show by a man famous for being too dull to be elected president — into an Oscar-winning international hit. The reaction to An Inconvenient Truth convinced the film’s star to assemble and train an army of climate-crisis presenters now known as The Climate Reality Project.

Guggenheim and David are gone, replaced by a new editorial team, but the star is back with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Most of the reviews so far are less than complimentary, and for good reason. But I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend the film anyway, largely because it’s a more honest portrayal of Al Gore the human being — and his approach to addressing the biggest public policy challenge of our time — than was the 2006 vehicle.

First, though, let’s address the problems with the film, beginning with its raison d’être. It’s really not a sequel at all, more like An Inconvenient Remake. Just as Gore’s Keynote slide show has managed to stay current without actually evolving much over the past decade (not necessarily a bad thing), so the film preserves many key elements, swapping out each pivotal moment for a modern analog, and sticking close to the guiding philosophy of balancing tales of desperation with testimonials of hope.

Gone is the graph in which the trendline of rising greenhouse-gas emissions goes so high that Gore needs a cherry-picker to reach the end point. But the 2017 replacement, a column chart of the annual contributions of new solar power to Chile’s electricity mix, gets effectively the same treatment. Flood videos from 2015 replace flood videos from 2005. And there is still the requisite example of Gore getting all verklempt in front of his trainees as he describes the rising death tolls from extreme weather. So even with a new director and production crew, Gore is firmly in charge of the both the theatrical and cinematic formulas.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But do we really need an updated version of something we’ve already seen? One can argue that, yes, we do. Just as Hollywood seems to have a inexhaustable supply of Spiderman remakes because it knows that there’s always a younger audience who will prefer the latest version, so Gore understands the need to keep it fresh. The scientific underpinnings of the story notwithstanding, this is popular culture we are talking about here.

To be fair, there are significant differences between the two docs. The first one managed to sear certain images into viewers’ brains. The cherry-picker scene or the one where New York City gets inundated by sea-level rise are perfect examples. In fact, despite the emphasis on Gore’s personal odyssey, I submit that what people remember most about AIT is the evidence for the urgency of doing something about global warming, which is, after all, the whole point of the film.

By contrast (I could be wrong here, but all I can do is reflect my own reactions, and those of the folks sitting near me in the cinema), what most viewers will likely take away from AIS is images of Gore himself. Gore the frustrated presidential candidate, Gore the jet-setting volunteer diplomat, Gore the dear leader, Gore the high-stakes interlocutor, Gore the tired crusader. This is more problematic.

The film hadn’t even been officially released and the same old misleading complaints from the science-denial crowd about his Tennessee home’s electrical bills started flooding the far-right echo chambers. Gore is still hated by much of the country, although for no readily explainable reason, as far as I can tell. Putting him even more front and center is probably not the best way to make friends and influence people.

I am sure many will be surprised by the relatively short shrift given to the presenters, who are, after all, a direct consequence of the original film and a big part of Gore’s legacy. Surely a sequel would pay some attention to them. Yet the only presenter who gets any screen time is a Filipino who is still traumatized by the devastation caused by a typhoon that tore through his island. And even here, Gore gets the last word.

Maybe, though, this is exactly the point. Both Gore’s strengths and flaws are laid bare in the film. Sure, we get far more of him than we probably want. There was no need to rehash his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling that handed the presidency to George W. Bush. That was well explored the first time around. Plus, it’s hard to believe that Gore is responsible for the success of the 2015 Paris Agreement, even though the film makes his critical role as a broker in getting India on board a fundament part of the narrative.

But we get the bad with the good. At times Gore looks like he’s seen better days. Some of the shots feature his less-than-trim physique. There’s the embarrassingly brief encounter in Paris with the newly elected Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who dismisses Gore’s words of appreciation for bringing Canada back from the dark side by humbly quipping that “it was the Canadian people, not me,” before running off to whatever important appointment he was trying to keep. The film even wraps up with a self-righteous declaration of certainty of purpose.

This level of honesty make AIS worth the 98 minutes it asks of your time. We see both the impact one human being can have, and the limits of such power. Gore could have chosen to close with an admission of the latter, something along the lines of “Maybe I’m just titling at windmills (so to speak), but what else can one man do?” But he didn’t. For better or worse, that’s not who he is. And as carefully scripted as this documentary is, it succeeds much better than its predecessor at revealing the personality that has driven so much of the public conversation around climate change.

By the way, I’m one of the thousands Gore has trained to deliver his presentation, a task I still do from time to time. (As I was finishing off this review, in a public library, someone who had seen one of talks a few years ago walked up and asked me if I’d be doing another one thanks to the attention AIS is getting.) Like all my colleagues, I still care more about the message than about the messenger. But why a decade spreading a brilliantly crafted and compelling message has changed so few minds is a vital question, to which no convincing answer has yet been supplied. If nothing else, this new look at Gore and his methods gets us little closer to one.