Preparations, Adaptations and Generations: The Changing Face of the Climate Crisis


Published: January 31, 2008

Can you feel it getting warmer? Last summer was the hottest in years, and this winter has been pretty mild as well. A couple weeks ago, rare winter tornadoes stomped across large parts of the Midwest. In Mexico and Texas, the desert is creeping up, blowing away the topsoil to leave only hard clay and sand. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the glaciers of the Eastern Himalayas are melting too fast, wreaking hydrological destruction on low, flat Bangladesh. Almost the entire country sits only a few feet above sea level. When the oceans start to rise, Bangladesh will be one of the first to go. Even scarier, these glaciers aren’t coming back. Every winter they refreeze smaller than the year before. These glaciers are the major source of water to much of the subcontinent. When the glaciers disappear, so do the rivers, and hundreds of millions of people could be left without reliable sources of water to see them through the long dry winters. Some less conventional wisdom suggests that while global warming will be devastating for developing countries like Bangladesh, it could be quite a boon to countries like Canada and Russia, who may soon find large swaths of once frozen land becoming soft and moist and perfect for growing crops. This prediction is pretty shaky; as successful agriculture depends as much on soil quality and rainfall patterns as on simple temperatures. We have already invested many years and dollars in agricultural infrastructure that is at once amazingly efficient and terrifyingly precarious. If rain stops falling on the American Midwest before we have a chance to adapt, millions of people could be left to starve.

I have become convinced that, as a political issue, climate change is a whole lot like social security: people care about it in generations. When considering social security, seniors know there is probably enough money left for them, middle-aged folks are terrified that they will get cut off when they are too old to work and need support the most, and 30-somethings are scrambling to make their own arrangements. Most of us in our mid-20s or younger, however, have no real illusions that there will actually be anything left for us, and so we have given up on social security as a relic of an earlier time of idyllic economics and vastly alien demographics.

In the same way, I suspect that college students today will be the last generation to really harbor any hope that global climate change is something that we can actually stop outright. Every year passes with little real action, and every couple of months, studies trickle in about how far the process has already progressed, how inevitable the changes are, how we already passed the point of no return five or 10 or a hundred years ago. Look closely at the last decade of really serious reports, and you can see how the focus has been shifting from prevention to mitigation and towards adaptation.

So, what do we do? Our choices are quickly becoming limited. We can do what we can to slow the process down and make sure it doesn’t go much further, buy ourselves some time to shore up our levees, reevaluate our agricultural infrastructure and start a slow evacuation of Bangladesh and the other hopeless cases. The trick is to get started before preparation and adaptation becomes full on disaster management and famine relief.

Our other major option—and now this is my suggestion—is to take “drastic measures.” Man has long dreamed of blotting out the sun, and a cloud of precisely placed solar panels at the edges of Earth’s gravity well could potentially provide us with power and block out enough of the sun’s rays to keep the planet cool and dim for a century or so until the danger passes or we no longer fear a warmer world. Sound like science fiction? Get used to it. From stock brokers snorkeling to work down the canals of Lower Manhattan to yaks plowing the once frozen plains of northern Mongolia, all our possible climate futures are looking increasingly science fictional.

Of course, such a grand project as just described would probably have its own set of environmental and ecological consequences, but thems the breaks. A laissez-faire policy towards our climate is no longer an option. We are now the 30-somethings of the social security crisis, who must scramble to make our own arrangements for the world. What interests me more, however, is the next generation, who will grow up with human-changed climates as the norm. How will they view their place in the universe, knowing just what their carbon footprints can do? We must come to grips with the fact that our civilization is a force of nature that, intentionally or not, we have the power to bring about vast changes in our planet’s grandest processes. I hope that we can adapt to our changing planet, but I also wonder if our planet might eventually have to adapt to changes in us.