“Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming”


Rather than despair over the inevitable human suffering, loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels, and higher temperatures that accompany anthropogenic climate change, ecologist and author Amy Seidl sees an opportunity for human society to develop new norms through adaptation – norms that will render it more resilient to the extreme and unpredictable events that lie ahead, and more sustainable in terms of environmental impact.

Post by Katherine O’Konski

On August 1, Seidl led a discussion about her book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming, at Greenpeace USA headquarters in Washington, D.C. The book is a sequel publication to Early Spring: an Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World, and deals with the potential for human society to adapt to the impending changes in Earth’s climate.  She was also featured on the Diane Rehm Show on August 2 (with archived webcast) to discuss adaptation to climate change.

Climate Science Watch focuses on critical analysis of the collision between science and politics in current U.S. climate policy, defending the climate science community and calling out the actions of policymakers in Washington when they are not in the public interest.  Seidl addresses a different and very difficult question – what direct practical actions can be taken by individuals and communities to cope adaptively with climate change?

The book accepts the eventuality of climate change and proposes both mitigation and adaptation as two inevitable courses of action.  An emerging body of research is finding that some species have already started evolving in response to higher temperatures, shorter winters, earlier springs, and different patterns of rainfall.  One of Seidl’s main points is that, just as these species are being forced to adapt, human society will have to adapt to the changes it has created and to its position as an agent of natural selection.

Rather than a destructive force, humans must become a nurturing force.  “Humanity is coevolving with nature just as nature is evolving in response to human action,” Seidl says. “We become the agents that support living systems when we green the roof of factories and provide nesting sites for meadowlarks, or when we design constructed wetlands that not only break down wastewater but serve as a habitat for marsh-loving species.”  The realization that our communities are vulnerable to droughts, floods, and rising sea level will encourage us to adapt by building communities to be more resilient to these events. In doing so, we may limit the environmental damage from future disasters.

Fully recognizing our role as a supportive agent will require nothing less than a massive social movement.  There must be morality associated with the emission of greenhouse gases.  Yet Seidl believes adaptation itself will help move this new thinking along, and thus also encourage mitigation.  “Adaptation will be integral to the social transition that will accompany us in the Age of Warming,” she says. “Like social movements in the past – women’s right to vote, the eight-hour workday, and civil rights of African Americans – the climate change movement and its goal to end carbon emissions will involve the reformation of our lives.”

And what will the world look like after this movement has taken hold?  Seidl envisions a future when renewable energy is more fully developed and accessible, and where the community scale, rather than the global scale, is emphasized.  Developing local self-reliance, she maintains, will establish “a political economy…[that is] less about industrial consumerism and more about environmental sustainability, justice, and persistence.”

In attendance at Greenpeace for Seidl’s book talk, we took the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Other species are going to have to evolve by adjusting to changes as they happen.  One thing that humans are able to do to a limited extent, using climate science and ecosystem science, is to anticipate, project, predict changes that haven’t happened yet. So I’ve taken to referring to adaptation as “preparedness” or “adaptive preparedness” so that it adaptation incorporates the idea of not just adjusting to the things that we’re about to be clobbered by, but proactively making our lives more resilient by using climate science and ecosystem science to project future changes. This seems to call for a societal level planning activity. How does this fit into the grassroots activity that you’re describing?

Amy Seidl:
The in-situ nature of adaption is driving not only grassroots interests, but durable community based interests to say we’ve got to be less vulnerable.  Until we see top-down regulatory effort, I think that planning is exactly the stage in which adaptation preparedness, risk assessment to uncertain events, or more frequent extreme events that have uncertainty around them is where there will be bipartisan local action.  It has the opportunity to transcend and include other issues simultaneously.

Because in a lot of cases this is infrastructure. How else should we take care of water systems, not only changing the sewer systems for these flooding events, but how else should we think about them given the pressures on them because of human impact?  In Vermont we saw 5 inches of rain in 24 hours and we have 1.5 million gallons overflow our sewage systems.  In one week we have more phosphorous loading into the lake than in an entire year.

So it’s not only containing the water, its actually purifying and building something that can deal with these overflows and perhaps biomimetic tools to absorb phosphorous before it reaches a place like Lake Champlain.  That’s what I mean about transcending and including, when we’re going to talk infrastructurally about not only climate change, but other issues on the table.

The current impasse over climate policy in Washington does not mean there is nothing one can do on the local scale.  In her book a few of the things Seidl talks about, for example, include helping tend community gardens, supporting local food and eergy cooperatives, and using resources and energy prudently.  She notes, “While I am deeply frustrated with my government’s response to the climate crisis at hand, and have not abated my advocacy for change at larger scales, I find that more is accomplished by working at the local scale. It is also intensely satisfying.”

The attempt to decouple the clean energy discourse from anthropogenic climate change is a strategic error.  You have to keep that message together.  We’re going to have adverse climate change impacts, you have to talk about it, there’s no way with any scientific or intellectual integrity you can say “let’s not discuss adaptation because it’s inconvenient.”  And if people start thinking seriously about the impacts and about the limits of how we’re going to be able to adapt to this (for example, how are we going to adapt when Greenland melts into the ocean?), that will help to drive the demand for mitigation. Thoughts?

Amy Seidl:
You know in the book I actually talk about it, I make the metaphor of the double-stranded helix. They are entwined that way. How might the NGOs begin to lay this language out? We need to deal with the vulnerability of these communities when they’re struck by extreme events. For the adaptation we have four opportunities: we can do nothing, we can move, we can buffer ourselves from these events, and we can also build more resilient communities.  So it’s important that we do both of those latter two; moving, of course, is the extreme case.

But how do we bring our constituents along?  In some places you see visionary leadership that is working to build something that is resilient – like Mayor Daley in Chicago, who has set about planning in many agencies for what a warm, hot, humid Chicago means, like when you can no longer grow the white oak, a native species of Illinois. Perhaps we can do that with the NGOs as a unified effort in the country, but at least the message is where you start.

On the Diane Rehm Show, Seidl appeared with Mike MacCracken, chief scientist at the Climate Institute, and Paul Gilding, author and former executive director of Greenpeace International.  Here, Seidl pointed out that, rather than coming from the top down, “successes have come from individual cities, towns, and states that have seen the writing on the wall and increased their ability to mitigate.”

But the need for action is very pressing.  As MacCracken emphasized, “if we end all emissions tomorrow, we could recover to some extent.  But we can’t [immediately] sustain all the people in the world without fossil fuels. There must be a transition over the next few years.”

Is it possible that this transition could be led from the bottom up?  “It is important to look for where the grassroots is percolating up,” Seidl said.  “Mitigation is essential.  The phenomena are upon us.  We must simultaneously press for mitigation at the federal level, and adapt in our own communities.”

Finding Higher Ground is an excellent publication in that Seidl recognizes the role of the individual, the community, and the government in coping with a warming planet.  Determining effective roles for people at all these levels of the system is becoming apparent as a necessary factor for the future of America. Seidl believes progress can be made through involving people in adaptation action.  She concludes: “The adaptations we bring into existence will be the very makings of our persistence.”

Earlier posts:
Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth

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