Climate Change confronts Human Nature: Adapting to an “adaptation mentality”

Dr. Michael Glantz
5 August 2009

Mickey Glantz
August 5, 2009

While governments negotiate and bicker over how much greenhouse gases each one can emit, the climate warms. This warming of the global climate is now expected to surpass the relatively safe level of a 2ºC increase. This change has been projected to have major negative impacts on weather-related phenomena and on societies throughout the 21st century, and those impacts are supposed to increase in number and intensities and frequencies as the decades pass.

Discussions about adaptation measures related to climate change seem to be the rage of the day among policy makers, climate researchers, and social scientists, especially since 2007 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to IPCC researchers working on the issue of climate change (aka global warming). Now, we hear about adaptation to cope with the causes and the impacts, guesstimates about potential ecological and societal impacts, methods to assess them, and options available.

Adaptation has several definitions, some of which conflict with one another. For example, adaptation has been used to refer both to proactive preparations and to reactive responses to climate related hazards. To most others, however, adaptation is only the recognition of the need of societies to consider climate change in future planning.

Regardless of definition, time is running out for the global community; and very few signs indicate that either the political or the social will exists to respond in a timely and effective way to change the trends that point toward increased warming of the earth’s atmosphere.


It seems the only option available is to clean up after the impacts occur, discussions about geo-engineering the climate system notwithstanding. Therefore, adaptation to climate change can also be interpreted as recognition, even acceptance, of the belief that societies everywhere are pretty helpless in the face of a yet-to-be controlled changing climate. Societies—after millennia of struggling for the upper hand on climate—are apparently surrendering to the vagaries of the climate system.

But Americans do not see themselves as quitters. They often side with the underdog in a conflict, and they are known for their (blind) faith in technology, believing that the country’s engineering capabilities and ever-evolving modern marvels can overcome most, if not all, problems. I must admit that I shared this view of our engineering know-how; in fact, my first university degree was a BS in Metallurgical Engineering. History shows that engineers have time and time again risen to an occasion to overcome a wide range of constraints imposed on societies both by the vagaries of nature as well as by poor decision-making.

But now I believe we may have met our match, having not only created more environmental problems – air pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, etc. – but also what could prove in the end to be “The mother of all environmental problems”, that is, an environmental change that can spawn innumerable environmental and social changes across the planet: Global Warming.

Global warming is already spawning a wide range of environmental changes and hazards. In the past, we tried to outwit nature and for the most part were pretty successful (at least for a while). But the overwhelming power and constancy of change in nature always seems to eventually prevail over our attempts to control it. Today, ironically, the nature that is causing many of the problems we face is human nature. In the spirit of the 1970s Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy. It is us.”

Why then do I seem to be giving up on any effective attempt in the short to midterm to arrest, let alone roll back, greenhouse gas emissions? Robert Cushman Murphy once said, man “seems to be the sole insatiable predator, because, unlike lower animals, he takes his prey from motives other than personal survival.” The same may be true for our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels. Even though there are signs across the globe as to the serious impacts that will accompany a climate change of 2-4ºC, societies continue to deal with those impacts at a rate much slower than the actual changes, such as with the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, which is accelerating at rates surprising even to the scientists who have been monitoring it for decades.

At this point, researchers can only speculate about what we are doing to future climate. Is, for example, a runaway greenhouse effect a possibility, and if so, what happens to civilization and human habitability on the planet? The planet does not care which country does what reductions; it will go on fine without us and with a significantly warmer climate. The flora and fauna that evolve with the changing climate will take over.  The planet cares not either way.

I can picture the greeting card personification of Mother Nature laughing at human attempts to geo-manage the planet through such hubris as “man dominating Nature” or “rugged individualism” [I can do what I want to the environment]. In the end, we are only harming ourselves, since we are only making the planet less hospitable for our success as a species. In other words, we must accept the reality that “we need Nature but Nature does not need us.” We need to foster a “mentality of adaptation” to a changing climate or we might just be the ones who are changed. As I see it, humanity could very likely at a fork in the road: one direction can take you to a sustainable future based on humans living in harmony with a variable and changing society and the other direction taking us to a very different future . . . to extinction. Let’s hope our policymakers around the globe can make the right choice!

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