“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
—The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkein
We have reached a critical point in the climate change saga. The global temperature is now one degree Celsius higher than the pre-industrial average, and the latent effect of fossil fuel emissions already in the atmosphere is enough to warm the planet another half degree. This means that we will reach the critical 1.5-degree threshold that portends severe and irreversible climate change even without another iota of emissions.
Add to this the fact that there are no indications that the world is prepared to cut fossil fuel emissions (they are actually going to continue to increase), and it is understandable that those who concern themselves with this subject are beginning to doubt our ability to avoid a full-blown crisis. This doubt has caused some to begin to turn their thoughts towards adapting to what increasingly seems to be the inevitable.
The dictionary defines “adapt” as follows: “to bring one thing into correspondence with another.” In other words, to establish a stable relationship in which tensions are reconciled and a tranquil status quo can be established. Such a modus vivendi is possible, however, only if there is a stable state to which we can adapt.
Unfortunately, it will take the planet hundreds or thousands of years to return to thermodynamic equilibrium, depending on how hard we force the climate with our carbon dioxide emissions. During this time the climate will undergo continuous change, and this means that we will not be able to adapt to it. Instead we will be continuously fighting a rear-guard action, as it were, both preparing for and reacting to ever-worsening conditions.
This will be the new normal, and it will increasingly challenge the ability of individuals and societies to survive. There will be no détente with the forces of nature that we have unleashed. We cannot adapt; we can only extemporize. We will continuously prepare, repair, and relocate.
Let me hasten to add that I am not endorsing a fatalistic do-nothing policy. Of course we need to do our best to prepare for the oncoming crisis. I am merely pointing out that it is misleading to call this “adapting” because mankind will never again be at peace with the climate. That was the Holocene. We are now in the Anthropocene.
Let’s say that you are the mayor of Miami. The sea level is rising. You want to build a sea wall, but how high do you build it? Do you build it for the sea level in 2040, in 2060, in 2100, or beyond? Whatever height you choose, the sea will eventually rise to crest it.
And, how do you react when saltwater begins to permeate the sandy ground that underlays south Florida and begins to invade the freshwater aquifers that provide Miami and other cities in the area with drinking water? You cannot build a wall to contain it. All you can do is pipe water in from farther inland (if it is available) or move. You can call this adaptation if you like, but it seems more like capitulation. We will be doing a lot of capitulating as we defer to mother nature’s increasing hostility.
Now let’s say you are the mayor of Dharan, Saudi Arabia, one of the hottest cities in the world. In a recent heat wave, the city recorded a wet-bulb temperature of 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The wet-bulb temperature is taken with a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth with air blowing over it. It gives the equivalent dry-bulb temperature at 100% humidity. Weather reports give dry bulb temperatures, but the wet bulb temperature is more important when measuring human tolerance to heat and humidity. When the wet-bulb temperature reaches 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the body can no longer cool itself because it cannot perspire. Humans can only survive for about six hours at this temperature.
As the world continues to warm, heat waves in Dharan will increase in frequency and wet-bulb temperatures will get closer and closer to 95 degrees. Eventually they will begin to exceed it on a regular basis and living in Dharan will become like living in hell. As mayor, how to you adapt to this?
You will need to run air conditioners a lot more. Dharan is home to Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national oil company, so the city should have ample oil to produce electricity to power its air conditioners. But this increases carbon dioxide emissions, which compounds the fundamental problem. Some other things you will also need to do: increase the city budget for energy use, provide for energy assistance to the poor, restrict the use of vehicles to curtail emissions, and issue a climate curfew to restrict outdoor activity during the hottest times of the day.
The growing health hazards of living in such a hot climate and the deteriorating quality of life will eventually force residents to relocate to cooler climes. There will be nothing you can do as mayor to stop it. By the end of the century, climate scientists expect that much of the Middle East will be uninhabitable. This will put tens of millions of climate refugees on the road headed north with frightful social, economic, and geopolitical consequences.
Over the next three decades, droughts, floods, and heat waves will reduce global agricultural production by ten to twenty percent while at the same time we will add another two billion souls to the human family. How do we adjust to this? We can ration food up to a point, but what happens when there is simply not enough food to go around? We can’t adapt to this, and many will die. The poorest among us will be the first, but no one will be spared if the planet continues to warm.
I don’t think that most people have a clear idea of how dramatically conditions will change and how long that change will go on. What we can try to do is coexist with the change, survive the change, struggle to cope with the change, and generally just keep our heads above water (metaphorically and literally). What we cannot do is adapt to the change.
Sisyphus was the life of the party. He was always kidding around and never showed the gods on Mt Olympus much deference. He also liked to play tricks on them, thinking that he was smarter than the lot of them. Zeus became irritated at this arrogance and condemned Sisyphus to endlessly rolling a boulder up a steep hill, only to lose control of it near the top. The boulder rolled back down the hill and Sisyphus had to start the whole process over again and again. Zeus wanted to remind Sisyphus who was boss.
Somewhere along the way we lost our sense of place and purpose in the world – ideas that gave depth and meaning and purpose to our lives. Without them, we are at sea. The disorientation is intolerable, so either we settled for an indolent aimlessness, or we sought substitutes: fame, money, power, influence, friendships, entertainment, recreation, hobbies, and other pastimes and purposes to fill the emptiness inside. But these are inadequate substitutes because they don’t contain or represent a deeper meaning or purpose for us. They are only what they are. So, we pursued them to excess in a futile effort to fill the unyielding inner emptiness, and in the process, began to destroy the world we live in and depend upon. But having lost our connectedness to nature, we had become either blind to or indifferent to the damage we were inflicting.
Comes now Mother Nature, like Zeus, to punish us for our arrogance, our irresponsible waywardness, and our callous disregard for her. She comes to condemn us to endlessly adjusting to a harsh and unstable climate – our version of the Sisyphean fate. But our punishment, unlike that of Sisyphus, will not be eternal. Either we will survive the catastrophe that we created, and the torment will end, or we will not survive and will join the 99.9% of all other species that have ever existed and which have become extinct.
Whether we survive this punishment is a question we cannot answer. What we can say is that, the sooner we get started on serious efforts to curtail fossil fuel emissions, the more we improve our chances.