Cartoon courtesy of Don Wright.
Recently I was talking with a colleague about why it’s been so difficult in climate circles to talk about adaptation. Often, the topic is taboo. Mitigation– reducing greenhouse gas emissions (whether stabilizing CO2 at 450 or reducing to 350 parts per million,) and fostering a new energy low-carbon economy (and creating millions of jobs in the process) are the two sides of the climate coin that get virtually all of the attention, whether at COP15 or on the national and regional stage. But climate change is already occurring and will continue to increase even if all the best case scenarios for reducing impacts and transforming away from a fossil-fuel based economy do happen. Climate adaptation has been missing, often deliberately, from most climate policy and education discussions. Why? Isn’t it prudent and in the spirit of the “precautionary principle” to prepare for changes rather focus almost exclusively of trying to prevent them? Why haven’t we begun preparing for the inevitable sea level rise along the costs, the changes in precipitation amounts and patterns, the disruptive impacts of temperature changes on species, ecosystems and communities? (And on a related note, why has the General Accounting Office has been chided by the White House for their recent report on Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning?)
The reason for the adaptation taboo in part is because as a society we are in denial about the (already occurring) changes and reluctant to confront the massive public works and societal transformation that will need to happen to adapt. But there’s more to it than that.
My colleague had a simple answer that makes sense: to admit we need to adapt to climate change is to admit defeat. And nobody likes to admit defeat. Moreover, the logic goes, admitting adaptation is necessary will distract from if not deny the imperative of reducing emissions. But, again, climate change is here, now, in our backyards, and our communities and students are woefully unprepared to deal with current let alone future changes, in part because of this flawed logic that doesn’t want to accept that mitigation alone, even if successful, isn’t enough. Mitigating by lowering emissions and fostering a decarbonized economy are really adaptation strategies, but only part of the toolkit we need to adapt.
A related dimension to this, at least in the United States, is that we’ve not had an adult conversation at the national level about climate and energy….and especially adaptation. The “alarmed” (the ~18% of the nation who are well-informed and consider climate change a serious problem and priority,) are accused by the “dismissive” and “doubtful” ( ~18% who are convinced climate change isn’t happening, and/or it’s natural cycles, and/or there’s nothing to be done about it) of being alarmists and pessimists. So, to put a positive spin on climate change, initiatives like Repower America and related efforts, try to tap the inherent optimistic spirit of Americans. But optimism has its limits.
In a recent NY Times article entitled “Seeking a Cure for Optimism,” author Abby Ellin writes:
Americans are an optimistic, can-do lot. We subscribe to the belief that we have a right to not just pursue happiness, but to be happy. No matter how grim the last year has been, no matter how rotten the economy or one’s own setbacks, people believe it can all change with the flip of the calendar: all you need do is look on the bright side….Is any of this true? Can an optimistic attitude and a will to happiness lead to a better you in the new year?
Recently, a number of writers and researchers have questioned the notion that looking on the bright side — often through conscious effort — makes much of a difference. One of the most prominent skeptics is Barbara Ehrenreich, whose best-selling book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” published in the fall, maintains that thinking positively does little good in the long run, and can, in fact, do harm.
“Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions,” Ms. Ehrenreich said. “If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you?”
The article goes on to examine the views of other researchers who, likewise, find serious limits to the stereotypical American optimism.
Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been exploring the function of positive emotions since the early 1990s. Dr. Fredrickson, whose book “Positivity” was published this year, differentiates between positive thinking and positive emotion. “Positive thinking can sometimes lead to positive emotion, but it won’t always,” she said. “It’s like the difference between wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Life is Good’ and actually feeling deep in your bones grateful for your current circumstances.”
With that in mind, she cautions that the idea of “fake it till you make it” can actually be harmful to one’s health. “What my research shows is that those insincere positive emotions — telling yourself ‘I feel good’ when you don’t — is toxic and actually more harmful than negative emotions. We need to become more sophisticated about what is real and what is fake within people’s attempts to be positive.”
Whether the topic is health, personal or global economic issues, or climate science and energy realities, the challenge is to not sugar coat nor overwhelm with doom and gloom but to be really honest.
As for Ms. Ehrenreich, she believes that negative thinking is just as delusional as unquestioned positive thinking…. Her goal? To encourage realism, “trying to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.”
And this is where education– about climate in general, mitigation through decarbonizing our economy and adapting to current and future changes– is so crucial. In the Guiding Principle of the Essential Principles of Climate Literacy include language about adaptation:
Humans can adapt to climate change by reducing their vulnerability to its impacts. Actions such as moving to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, planting new crops that will thrive under new climate conditions, or using new building technologies represent adaptation strategies. Adaptation often requires financial investment in new or enhanced research, technology, and infrastructure.
It’s natural for us as humans to see-saw between optimism and pessimism. As Paul Hawken said at a recent commencement address:
If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.