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Harvey shows us we can’t just adapt to climate change

Nathan Campbell

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In today’s world, catastrophic weather events such as Hurricane Harvey, which unleashed 130 mph winds and dumped more than 50 inches of water in a 48-hour timespan this past weekend, tend to elicit debates on the impact of climate change.  

For most climate scientists, it is too early to attribute Harvey’s particularly hellish destruction solely to climatic factors; the sample size is too small and too little data has been collected thus far. But there are certain climatic factors that appear to have contributed to its power: warmer air temperatures, increased moisture in the air, warmer than average surface water temperatures, and a lack of cold seawater to weaken the storm before landfall. Climate change is usually discussed in the abstract. Harvey was a very concrete reminder.

So while rescue workers attempt to save those caught in its wake and families attempt to reestablish their lives, I can already envision the refrain that conservatives in Congress will rally behind as they grapple with the climatic data concerning Harvey: adapting to climate change will be easier and cheaper than preventing it.

In addressing climate change, almost every solution can be reduced down to two basic responses: mitigation (preventing the climatic effects, usually through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (changing infrastructure and policies to cope with the effects of climate change). The two are not mutually exclusive, nor are they created equal.

With each ton of carbon we emit, we contribute to the overall concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That concentration is what dictates the effects that climate change will unleash upon segments of the world, whether it be severe drought in the Middle East or a 500-year storm in the Gulf of Mexico. By emitting that ton of carbon, we are incrementally contributing to the suffering of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. The United States, as one of the leading contributors to global carbon emissions, is contributing to the suffering of our own citizens as well as the suffering of other nations.

Which brings us to the two responses I outlined earlier. The mitigation or elimination of that one ton of carbon emissions will benefit all of humanity. One such solution rooted in mitigation would be the transition from coal-fired power plants to nuclear power or solar power. While we may bear the full cost of that particular infrastructure shift, that investment will prevent the suffering of humanity, both in the U.S. and across the globe. In essence, mitigation of climate change is fundamentally altruistic, holding all global citizens as equal.

Adaptation, in contrast, is the opposite of altruistic. It is the decision to protect oneself, one’s city, or one’s nation. With this response, we continue to emit carbon and choose to value our own people’s well-being above others, thus continuing the cycle of global suffering. The benefits will be local and uneven, as the money spent on adaptation benefits only those in proximity to the money being spent. Building a sea wall might have protected Texas, but it would do nothing to combat the flooding in places like Nigeria.

Conservatives, at least those who accept the consensus on climate change, tout adaptation as the only viable solution, arguing that mitigation will create unnecessary economic burdens. Some subtly argue, under the guise of market capitalism, that rich nations deserve the advantages that their hard work and accumulated wealth affords them – one such advantage being protection from climate change. Moreover, adaptation appeals to our sense of tribalism. It appeals to fearful, nationalistic personality types, a mindset that is flourishing under President Trump.

But choosing adaptation as the sole response to climate change is essentially writing a blank check. As long as we continue to emit massive amounts of greenhouse gases, we will be fighting a never-ending battle to adapt to an ever-changing climate. The fight will be endless and wildly expensive, and who knows if we would ever reach a ceasefire, let alone a victory. It is fiscally irresponsible, and will inevitably will lead to a more intrusive government capable of determining where and how people live, all in the name of national security. 

Beyond the economic or governmental repercussions, there is more pressing problem with putting all hope behind adaptation. By choosing this route, we reinforce existing wealth and power inequalities. As we become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, our internal response will not be for the support of global climate treaties or aid packages to foreign nations. We will demand local adaptations to protect our homes and families, allowing nationalistic politicians to tap into this fear. We will slowly shield ourselves from the outside, either watching as poorer nations succumb to the devastation wrought by climate change or ignore the widespread suffering altogether. Billions will be relegated to death, just so a select few can hold out a little longer.

Mitigation and adaptation are both necessary at this point. We have altered the climatic balance, and the consequences will continue to flare up across the globe for years to come, forcing us to adapt to survive. But adaptation can never be the alternative or replacement for mitigation. If there is any hope to lessen the devastation brought on by climate change, it resides in mitigation. It resides in a transition to clean energy. A rethink in how we consume water and produce food. Without these tools such as these, we are helpless.

For every day mitigation is delayed, the need for adaptation grows, most especially in places that will depend on the ongoing benevolence of wealthier nations to pay for it. That’s not a recipe for egalitarian outcomes. The bill for climate change is growing with each passing day. Should we start paying it off now, or wait for the collection agency to start taking more human lives instead?

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in Environmental Engineering. His column runs biweekly

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Harvey shows us we can’t just adapt to climate change