Wednesday, March 30, 2005

If You Can't Beat 'Em...
There's a secondary debate with regard to climate change, simmering alongside the main show on whether or not it's happening and to what degree we (humans) are causing it. This other debate, which doesn't get nearly as much media coverage, concerns whether our focus should be on trying to prevent climate change or working on the means to adapt to it. You can view the latter as either contingency planning or pessimism that nothing currently on the table--including the Kyoto Treaty--will slow down climate change, let alone halt or reverse it.

I must admit I'm intrigued by adaptation, even though I have certainly not given up on efforts to slow down the process. For example, I was interested to see that the Swiss have announced a practical measure to retard one of the local effects of climate change: blanketing a glacier to keep it from melting away. If this works, perhaps it could be applied on a larger scale elsewhere, including Greenland, where scientists worry that melting glaciers could tip a delicate salinity balance and shift the Gulf Stream, with disastrous consequences for Northern Europe.

Other possible adaptation measures range from building dikes to slow the loss of coastland, to really large-scale "geo-engineering" that borrows ideas first considered for terraforming other planets, like Mars. This stuff is hugely controversial, partly because it involves projects with potentially enormous unanticipated consequences, and partly because it looks like defeatism on the main environmental agenda of reducing carbon emissions. It can also smack of some of the notions coming from the Greening Earth crowd, i.e. warming is good, and can we have some more, please?

I'd like to think the adaptation and prevention camps could be reconciled. There's a lot that can be done at relatively low cost--or even at a profit--to manage the problem in the way contemplated by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body behind Kyoto. But we can't put all our eggs in this basket; someone must be working on the things we'll need if warming proceeds faster, with consequences approaching the worst-case predictions. And like it or not, some serious science also needs to be done on the really big, last ditch measures required if we ended up in a "runaway greenhouse," however remote a possibility that might be. I hope we never have to make those choices, but if we do, I'd sure want to have some detailed options to choose from.

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