How to Fight Global Warming? Maybe Just Live With It

Global warming has moved to center stage, backed by widespread consensus that we are in for big changes in the years ahead, but the scale of the problem is so huge that many are left feeling there's nothing they can do to stop it. And they're probably right.

Even if by some miracle greenhouse gases that are now warming the planet could be frozen at their current level, the Earth would continue to grow warmer for decades because the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere is already higher than at any time in the past 650,000 years, scientists say. And the chance that we're going to turn that around is about as good as that proverbial snowball in hell.

So what's a body to do? Learn to live with it.

For some odd reason, nearly all the agony over the possible impact of global climate change seems to be directed at stopping it. Relatively little thought is given to trying to figure out how to adapt to changes that are now inevitable. That subject, according to one group of scientists, is "taboo."

"Adaptation has been portrayed as a sort of selling out, because it accepts that the future will be different from the present," said Daniel Sarewitz, director of Arizona State University's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes. "The future will be different from the present no matter what, so to not adapt is to consign millions to death and disruption."

Sarewitz, joined by an international group of colleagues, argued in a recent issue of the journal Nature that we have become obsessed with trying to reduce human impact on climate and have ignored the more urgent need to deal with inevitable changes. Sarewitz doesn't have to look beyond his own backyard to see evidence of that.

While driving through Arizona a couple of weeks ago, I saw subdivisions and even shopping centers that weren't there when I passed through the same area just four months ago. Growth is next to godliness in that part of the country, but there's a problem. The Southwest is now in its eighth year of drought, and some climate experts believe droughts will be longer, and more intense, there in the years ahead because of global warming.

So where's the water going to come from to cool that parched land? If the drought continues for just a few more years, we'll probably see water wars return to that region. And as I told a sixth grade science class in Los Angeles recently, those bright students will probably see the day when they will pay as much for water as for gasoline.

But is the Southwest likely to put the brakes on growth? Not likely.

Adaptation, apparently, isn't our style. At least not until we have to. Will a few Category 5 hurricanes convince Florida to ban further construction along its beaches?

Are we going to hear presidential candidates call on us to make personal sacrifices, like contributing to relief efforts in the poor countries that will pay the highest price for our excesses? Probably not.

One of the reasons we are not taking this issue seriously enough is it's very hard to predict the future, climatologists say. A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences warns that climate changes will be huge in many areas of the planet, but there will also be surprises.

John Williams of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, lead author of the report, says some climate zones will disappear entirely, to be replaced by climates that are unlike any in the world today. That is particularly true in the tropics and subtropics, as well as the polar regions where great changes are already taking place, he noted.

Consequences could be far reaching. For example, Williams and his colleagues see more fires and loss of forests in the Amazon region, further desecrating an area that now soaks up a lot of carbon dioxide.

"The potential for ecological surprises in the tropics adds urgency to current conservation efforts," the study concluded.

Not long ago scientists thought climate changes were going to come very slowly, and that made it easier for us to ignore the possible consequences. Why worry today about something that may happen in a hundred years or so?

But it turns out that the changes are coming much more quickly than had been thought. Scores of Native American villages along the northwest coast of Alaska will vanish within the next decade or so. Sea ice that normally protects the communities from fierce winter storms is disappearing, causing the land beneath the villages to erode away. Some of those villages have been there for centuries. But they won't be there much longer.

An entire culture, and lifestyle, will be lost.

The villages could be relocated, but no government agency has come up with the funds to do so. Adaptation, it turns out, is costly in many ways. It's easier to worry about something we cannot change than it is to address problems that we can fix.