“We talk about climate change as if it’s going to happen. It has happened.”
Those words from British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell opened today’s session of the Governors’ Global Climate Summit. It was a message echoed by regional and national leaders from around the world throughout the day: Climate change isn’t just about mitigation anymore, it’s about adaptation now as well.
The U.S. Southwest is already experiencing a 1.5-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, one of the most rapid in the nation, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told a break-out session on managing water resources in a changing climate. CEQ is helping to put together federal adaptation strategies as heat waves worsen, while states such as California have adaptation plans in place for dealing with sea level rise, water shortages, snowpack melts, fires and droughts that are already being experienced.
In Western Canada, 80 percent of the mature pine forest in Campbell’s province will be gone by 2013, wiped out by pine beetles due to warmer winters that have allowed the pests to survive and thrive, unchecked.
On the islands of Kiribati, sea level rise has already claimed two atolls. Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, talked about meeting Kiribati’s president, who told her that his government is developing education programs so the young people can “migrate on merit rather than as climate refugees.”
Jane Goodall described standing with Inuit leaders watching ice sheets in Greenland break and disappear.
The Earth is also in danger of losing 1 billion species to climate change, and, yet, people aren’t getting the message, said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation and author of Last Chance — Preserving Life on Earth. He told the audience about seeing television ads in Virginia last week (put out by Carbon is Green) saying that carbon emissions are good and we need more. Congress has heard the same from opponents of climate action.
“When the pot is boiling over, no one would suggest turning up the temperature on the stove,” Schweiger said, “but that’s exactly what we’ve been doing with some of our policies.”
Schweiger’s prescription for both adaptation and mitigation is to drastically cut emissions, fund forest protection, put a price on carbon and use some of that income to fund sequestration through terrestrial means, implement agricultural changes to restore carbon in the soil and fund natural resources and adaptation.
Adaptation is a complex undertaking, however.
The developing countries that are hardest hit by climate change have done the least to cause it. Yet developed countries balk at a polluter pays principle. A new World Bank report estimates that adaptation costs will be $75 billion to $100 billion per year from now until 2050, and that is if the temperature rises only 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times.
As temperatures rise, explained Michele de Nevers, Senior Manager of the Environment Department at the World Bank, so does the cost of adaptation.
And then there is the question of what the outcomes would be from a 2-degrees-or-more rise in temperatures, now accepted by many as inevitable. Dessima Williams, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), says anything greater than 1.5 degrees increase will doom many AOSIS members.
Climate change impacts are difficult to estimate precisely, which creates another problem, said Yannick Glemarec, director of finance for the United Nations Development Program. For example, Paris could have the climate of either Bordeaux or Cordoba by 2050. If France banks on it being Bordeaux and it ends up being Cordoba, says Glemarec, there will be huge problems. The answer, he says, is to create upgrades and codes that are in line with the worst-case scenario and that also help to reduce energy use and carbon output.
Getting developed countries to agree on allocation of the cost burden, and agree that this money will not detract from existing development funds to reach the Millennium Development Goals, is also a challenge and may require what Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider calls “a values transplant”.
“We spent $750 billion in one year bailing out a bunch of under-regulated, greedy bankers,” Schneider said.
He layed out five immediate measures for addressing the climate crisis: adaptation; mandatory, global emissions performance standards; innovation incentives; a price on carbon; and even geo-engineering, which Schneider refers to "planetary methadone."
“The world we are leaving is very different than the world we have lived in, because of our failure to hear Rachel Carson in 1953,” said Schweiger of NWF. "If we don’t act now, our children and their children will suffer greatly.”
Acting applies not only to mitigation, but the adaptation measures needed to survive the damage already done.