Adapt or die. The all-natural approach to climate change

It was widely reported in June that Exxon’s CEO said we will adapt to climate change: ‘As a species that’s why we’re all still here: we have spent our entire existence adapting. So we will adapt to this.’ It’s an opinion with mainstream appeal because it’s true – ‘we’ always adapt (The ‘we’ who are still alive, that is).

Perhaps we should look at recent performance to get a sense of how well we manage. The Dutch have certainly wrested control of their land from the sea successfully for many years. And, after $15 billion in earthworks the levees mostly held during the recent storm over New Orleans. More success. Of course the 1,836 people who died during Katrina are still dead. Chalk it up to learning. And how well did we manage the conflict in Darfur – where drought played an aggravating factor, as will happen more in future due to climate change? Not well, to put it mildly: as many as 300,000 people distinctly failed to adapt.

On current form, it looks like heavy dependence on adaptation to the exclusion of real mitigation action will be exceedingly risky. Still, even if we do get things wrong, what are the consequences? Here’s where Exxon is on safe ground again in some sense – after all ‘we’, broadly speaking, will pull through. Richard Watson notes in his popular book Future Files; a brief history of the next 50 years that ‘the climate/carbon/water debate is really about how future change will affect those who are too poor to adapt…Periodic environmental crises have been part of the earth’s history for as long as the planet has existed. In fact there are a few people who think the odd mass extinction is good because it allows the evolutionary process to start again.’

Our genetic heritage is one of mass death, at the hands of nature and of each other. If we hadn’t been under pressure, we wouldn’t have evolved as we have (which includes being able to roll with the punches. It’s human nature to more or less ignore the suffering of complete strangers, and to endure our own. Otherwise life would be unbearable). Humankind has at times been reduced to very small numbers indeed – perhaps 5,000 people after a prolonged dry period in Africa 50,000 years ago. Tough times no doubt, but we adapted, as evidenced by our later invention of agriculture, and football. So, all in all things turned out nice.

It takes work not let the moss of time grow over bitter scars to the point of obscuring the lessons, which are all the more needed when resulting from human actions. The middle of the 20th century was so traumatic that it gave rise to stabilising institutions, and generated cultural memes that retain their power, like the horror of the holocaust. This should help prevent future students skimming economics texts and coming away with the idea that the war was just a good way to boost manufacturing.

Exxon and its ilk appeal to a deep instinct about our inherent abilities to overcome. But there’s a catch: adapting after the fact is an admirable human trait. Anticipating, and indeed causing, tragedy – using our ability to cope with the consequences as a justification not to avoid it – is an atrocity.

Recognising that distinction is, fortunately, another definingly human capacity.

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