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Time to begin 'adapting' to climate change?

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2007



At the World Bank in Washington, officials have posted some new "help wanted" signs. The bank is looking for a few good specialists (two, to be precise) to focus on adapting to global warming.

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It's a small beginning, perhaps. Still, the ads represent one signal that adaptation is emerging from the political doghouse to take its place among the front-rank options for dealing with climate change.

At least in the developed world, the idea that people should start figuring out how to deal with the projected effects of warming – changing temperature and rainfall, shifts in growing seasons, more bouts of severe weather, and rising sea levels – has been overshadowed by calls to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. Some environmentalists have viewed adaptation either as a white flag on the issue or as a refuge of contrarians who pooh-pooh the broad consensus that human activity is warming the climate.

But last week's release of a report on the science of global warming – with its projections of warming based on emissions already in the air, as well as on potential future emissions trends – has helped underscore the need. "Climate change is here and now," notes Ian Noble, a senior climate-change specialist at the World Bank. "We have to adapt."

Wet and dry conditions

In some cases, adaptation can be politically wrenching.

Australia, for example, is facing the worst drought in a century. The drought's length and severity is consistent with some projections of global warming, several scientists note. The national government has proposed a controversial, $2.5-billion (Australian) plan to wrest control of the withering Murray-Darling river basin – the country's largest river system – from the four states in eastern Australia that draw water from it. Meanwhile, Queensland has adopted regulations that since last March have required each new home in the state to draw nearly 40 percent less water than pre-2006 homes. In some towns, building codes specify the installation of large holding tanks to capture and store rain for use in gardens and to flush toilets.

If Australia represents the dry end of the adaptation spectrum in the developed world, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast may well represent the wet end. The region is still struggling to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The tragedy surrounding those two storms underline just how maladapted major population centers in the region are to today's conditions, let alone those that might hold in 2050 or 2100, experts say.

The latest draft of Louisiana's master plan for a "sustainable coast" contains several provisions, which are a direct response to the prospects for rising sea levels, increased hurricane intensity, and other effects of global warming, notes Jonathan Porthouse, executive director of the interagency planning team.

In the group's view, coastal Louisiana will be one of the first regions to feel global warming's imprint. Ironically, the potential for reductions in freshwater supplies in the western part of the state – already facing a water-management challenge – may grow, Mr. Porthouse says. The Mississippi River drains water and sediment from 40 percent of the US, he notes. Changes in flow upstream could have a serious effect on efforts to restore Louisiana's wetlands as well as on the fresh water available to the state.

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