Adaptation, and loving care

A little more care of our constantly changing planet would make adapting to those changes less difficult.

Bikeman Island, like the other 32 islands and atolls of the Pacific nation of Kiribati, faces imminent threat from a rising sea.

Good things deserve our tender, loving care. A crystalline pond deserves appreciation and protection before it gets choked with duckweed. A healthy neighborhood deserves preservation and support for the benefit of current and future residents. A business, a friendship, a family, a country cherished and supported in fat years seldom fails in lean ones. The smart way is to think ahead, to safeguard what we value.

But, well, humans neglect things. They drop the ball, lose interest, make messes – which makes fixing, adapting, renovating, and recovering as important as preserving and protecting.

Our climate deserves our care. The effects of climate change require us to fix and adapt. By mentioning climate change, I don’t mean to trigger another debate about human-caused versus natural effects. Geology tells us that climate is always changing. Earth’s ecosystem has gone through tumultuous shifts over the eons – from hothouse to ice age, from a planet optimized for reptiles to our own sweet world. 

But if today’s climate change is trivial in a geological sense, humans caught in its throes are nevertheless struggling to cope. In Monitor cover story (click here), Zack Colman shows how farmers in Morocco are switching their agricultural practices because of persistent drought conditions. Across the middle latitudes of the planet, he notes, some 3.4 billion people live in traditionally arid regions where the rains are becoming less dependable and the temperatures less tolerable for their crops.

There are two strategies to deal with climate change. One is to mitigate it by prudent measures taken now: tamping down carbon emissions, safeguarding the environment. That has costs. It means, among many other things, supporting international efforts such as the Paris climate accord, from which the Trump administration has said it plans to withdraw.

The second strategy is adaptation. Our climate is made up of way too many variables to calculate whether any specific change will be for better or worse. Warmer winters could bring rain and blizzards to one part of the world, droughts and insects to another, higher crop yields to yet another. Farmers, homeowners, businesses, and governments on the leading edge – along the US Gulf Coast, in Bangladesh, in the islands of the Caribbean and the western Pacific – are already hip deep in adaptation.

Adaptation only works, however, if you are sure of the situation you are in. In the High Atlas Mountains, farmers are pinning their hopes on the kernels of the argan tree. But if drought conditions worsen, even those resilient trees could fade. So while adaptation is necessary, it might not be enough. Prevention is at least as important. 

Prevention is costly. But there’s only one great planet that we are talking about, one lovely pond called Earth. A little more tender, loving care now could help humanity avoid a major salvage effort in the not-too-distant future.

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