Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Climate Change: Regulators, Sinkers, and Adapters

Tom Barry

The fog of doubt about climate change is lifting as the climate-change deniers retreat fitfully to the sidelines. Science and simple observation have, for the most part, triumphed over ideology. The most retrograde politicians, policy institutes, and corporations are still busy manufacturing and propagating this denial ideology.

The deniers no longer occupy the center of the climate-change debate. Instead, the debate has increasingly moved to discussion about how to best address the intensifying threats of global climate change.

The facts of higher temperatures, weird weather, and increasing levels of atmospheric carbon are finally clearing away the ideological fog. After more than three decades of fruitless debate, the consensus accepting human-induced climate change rules.  

With the climate-change deniers in full retreat, new camps among climate-change activists are defining themselves and advancing new lines of debate. Broadly speaking, it could be said that there are three new camps, each with their own prophets and manifestos. The camps don’t stand in opposition, and they share many of the same convictions. But priorities and emphases differ.

The three camps might well be termed the Regulators, the Sinkers, and the Adapters.

The dominant camp includes those activists, scientists, writers, and policy advocates who constituted the vanguard in the public-education campaign against the climate-change deniers. The Regulators insist that policy changes at the local, national, and international levels are urgently needed.

The fundamental argument of the Regulators is as follows: Without severe governmental regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions – whether by financial disincentives, carbon-trading regimens, or outright prohibitions on carbon releases – the planet and human civilization, as we know it, will be but a wistful memory.

The second broad camp focuses less on prevention and more on plans to trap and dissipate greenhouse gases, mainly carbon. As the Sinkers readily acknowledge, regulations are needed to prevent and mitigate climate-change aggravating emissions, Yet atmospheric levels are already dangerously high, thus making it imperative, they assert, to seek solutions to sequester the carbon that’s already wreaking havoc with climate and societies. The priority, then, argue the Sinkers, is to preserve and to create (either naturally or technologically) “carbon sinks.”

Climate-change adaptation is the third major camp with the new climate-change consensus. While not disputing the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through governmental regulation and to sequester as much atmospheric carbon as possible, climate-change adapters focus on strategies designed to assist communities to survive climate change with environmentally sustainable techniques.

Determination and Hope Amid Gloom

Generally, climate-change scenarios fall within doomsday futures. Yet amid the prevailing doom and gloom new visions of more hopeful futures are emerging, especially among the Sinkers and the Adapters.

The deepening consensus the climate change is already upon us and will most certainly intensify has sparked a surge of new thinking and activism about the contentious human-nature relationship. Among an expanding community of climate-change activists -- environmentalists, scholars, entrepreneurs, and technologists – there’s an incipient, growing determination to move beyond the gloom to envision more stable and survivable futures.

Most of this more explicitly hopeful thinking about meeting the challenges of climate change is found among the Sinkers. By adopting more sustainable land-management practices that restore landscapes or by seeking innovative technological solutions, the most enthusiastic of the carbon-sink adherents argue that we can beat the climate-change crisis.  Emblematic of this type of Sinker optimism is a recent book titled Cows Save the Planet – and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth.

Adapters tend to think on smaller scale than the Regulators or Sinkers -- less about saving the planet and more about preparing for the trends and vagaries of climate change at the household or community level. In many ways, the Adapters are the new survivalists. But members of this new breed of survivalists aren’t retreating to the hills with their guns and stores of food in preparation for a predicted social and economic collapse, as has been the tradition of survivalists and “doomsday preppers,”

Adapters, for the most part, aren’t retreating.  They are standing their ground, reaching out for solutions and adaptations that will sustain life and community even as environmental conditions change.  Overall, the Adapters are pragmatic realists. They accept climate change as our new reality. Rather than finding escape routes, Adapters are seeking practical adaptations to increased flooding, droughts, forest fires, and pest infestations linked to disturbed climatic cycles.

The pragmatic realism of the Adapters would seem, by definition, to exclude hope, optimism, and idealism. Certainly, for the most part, most adaptation strategies are hardly visionary. Fortifying eroding shorelines with sand transfers or constructing cross-regional aqueducts to supply drought-stricken communities, for example, are short-term solutions that fail to break from unsustainable development paradigms.

Recognizing the urgent necessity to adapt to changing climatic conditions and weird weather events, a new breed of climate-change adapters are embracing and propagating the tenets of environmental sustainability as survival strategies. They are spreading hope by demonstrating that simple land and water management techniques can restore some measure of stability while putting communities back in touch with the vagaries of nature.

In the world’s aridlands -- comprising about 40% of the planet’s land surface -- the escalating threats of higher temperatures, prolonged droughts, and diminishing groundwater reserves are raising questions about whether current populations can survive in these increasingly harsh and degraded environments.

Among the most prominent voices among the Adapters in aridlands, including the western U.S.-Mexico borderlands, is Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist at the University of Arizona. Nabhan’s latest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, addresses survivability issues by pointing to an inspiring array of drylands adaptation strategies in the transborder West that could, if widely adopted, begin to restore balance and let desert dwellers glimpse a future.

What’s clear is that no living thing on this planet can count on the patterns and balances of nature to which we have become accustomed. The escalating levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and the array of indicators that climate and weather patterns have gone awry have led some to conclude that we are already past the point where climatic conditions can be stabilized.

Climate-change activists – whether they are Regulators, Sinkers, or Adapters – are well aware of these indicators. Yet, increasingly, many are outlining scenarios of reform, mitigation, and sustainable alternatives that instill hope. With determination, good sense, and visions of more sustainable relationships with nature, they are giving us some reason to be hopeful –especially about the capability of humans – ourselves and our communities -- to adapt and change directions.

(Reviews of Cows Save the Planet and Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land forthcoming.)