On the opening morning of the inaugural National Adaptation Forum, I was eating breakfast at a stand-up table in the exhibition hall when a mustachioed man of middle age plopped his cherry Danish next to my pile of conference literature, a mess of pamphlets and reports with titles like Getting Climate Smart: A Water Preparedness Guide for State Action, and Successful Adaptation: Linking Science and Policy in a Rapidly Changing World. The nametag dangling above the Danish identified the man as Michael Hughes, director of public works for the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. Like many attendees, Hughes was part of a new national emergency-response team without being fully aware of it. He had arrived in Denver knowing little about “adaptation,” the anemic catchall for attempts to fortify our natural and built environments against the epochal temperature spike in progress.
“I hadn’t even heard the term ‘adaptation’ a month ago,” he told me, taking a bite.
He didn’t know anything about the 20 federal agencies that just released adaptation planning studies, or the dozen coastal states negotiating the early stages of “managed retreat” and “coastal abandonment,” buzzwords for the work, underway from Puget Sound to Brighton Beach, of accommodating rising seas by contracting the contours of the U.S. map. Hughes didn’t know about any of this. He just knew that the Elmhurst sewage and water systems were buckling under the strains of the new normal, and that his job was figuring out what to do about it. “The floods keep coming, they keep getting worse, and every time there’s damage, everyone blames me,” he said. “I’m here to learn more about what’s happening, and talk to people dealing with the same problems.”
For three days in April, the downtown Denver Marriot was Mecca for people like Hughes. More than 500 registrants from the government, NGO, and university research worlds gathered to network and strategize amid a dense schedule of workshops that could double as creative sessions for the next Roland Emmerich cataclysm flick. Overflow crowds squeezed into drab conference rooms for presentations with names like “Cross-Sectoral Urban Adaptation,” “Building Coastal Resilience,” “Wildlife Adaptation and Managed Species Relocation,” and “Seawalls and Wrecking Balls: Operationalizing Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning. ” Over coffee and buffet lunches, the conversations continued minus the jargon. Western agricultural officials in cowboy hats talked water wars and agriculture collapse with environmental program managers from New Jersey, who discussed the zoning politics of coastal retreat with climate justice activists from Los Angeles and Oakland.
This was the sound of America’s climate adaptation community coming together at the management level for the first time. The veterans among them were used to working the shadows and margins of politics and policy, struggling to get officials and the public to begin thinking five degrees and 20 inches ahead. “A couple of years ago, I’d get thrown out of meetings for talking about climate change and the need to fund adaptation,” said a Maryland planning official. Super storm Sandy did much to change that, and Denver was a celebration of adaptation’s new momentum. The event also twinkled under rare beams of public recognition and appreciation: At the end of the welcome plenary, cheers erupted when a representative from City Hall announced Denver mayor Michael Hancock’s official proclamation of April 2, 2013 as “Climate Adaptation Awareness Day.”
Gestures like this won’t be needed much longer. As the cycle of super storms, floods, and drought deepens and tightens, the immediate need to protect and bend — adaptation — will displace efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions — mitigation — as the center stage of climate politics. An estimated rise of between three to eight degrees Fahrenheit this century will require real-time social reinvention tracked to our accelerating careen out of the stable temperature range of the Holocene Era. This means new ways of thinking and new institutions, the early buds of which could be seen sprouting in exhibition booths lined under the conference slogan, “Action Today for a Better Tomorrow.”
At one booth, a friendly rep explained the work of the Oregon-based Geos Institute, the first adaptation think tank. The booth next to his housed the director of a Boulder-based consulting firm called Stratus, a pioneer in developing models for assessing climate-risk for public and private clients. Then there was the booth manned by the glad-handing entrepreneur Daniel Kreeger, who in 2008 founded the Association of Climate Change Officers — a 501(c)(3) non-profit — on the models of the American Institute of Architects and the American Dental Association.
“I predict there will be thirty to fifty-thousand climate and adaptation professionals in next decade or so, up from the current low single-digit thousands,” said Kreeger. “Already we’re seeing environmental studies and MBA programs integrate climate-related work. The ACCO will set standards and provide services, same as any other professional association.” In October, Kreeger will host a three-day “Climate Strategies Forum” at D.C.’s Wardman Park Hotel. Platinum sponsorships cost $25,000 and include a full-page program ad and a speaking slot.
Occupying more than one booth in Denver was the Queen Bee of the government’s adaptation efforts. This is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which for several years has been steadily expanding its offerings of adaptation-related services, from running small-town seminars on effective adaptation messaging, to producing apps like CanVis, a “visualization software” that brings adaptation to life by superimposing estimated sea-level rise over photos of local landmarks. “Our role extends from providing the scientific data to advance our understanding of a changing climate, through working with our federal, state, tribal, regional and local partners to enable climate smart communities,” says Margaret Davidson, director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
The many facets of adaptation discussed in Denver — relocating species and habitats, fortifying that which can be saved, abandoning that which can’t, the general remapping of viable human settlement in the United States — together add up to something resembling a draft blueprint for a continent-scale American Ark. This Ark’s early drafts are being sketched out in pieces mostly at the local and state level. But as the impacts of climate change intensify, front-line public servants like Mike Hughes will increasingly turn for guidance and resources to federal agencies like NOAA.
And yeah, it’s pronounced, “Noah.”
A decade ago, the word adaptation was dirtier than coal. Among professional greens and activists focused on mitigation, even discussing it meant surrender. Only the long stall of international climate negotiations and stark signs of irrevocable climate change put an end to their distaste. If we have already caused warming, possibly setting unstoppable feedback loops into motion, then opposing adaptation was the intellectual and political equivalent of carbon sequestration, of burying our brains in the ground. During the aughts, the major green groups began to build adaptation divisions, one by one.
The first of these was a young marine biologist named Lara Hansen. Hansen joined the Environmental Protection Agency as a newly minted PhD in 1998 just in time to witness a massive global coral bleaching event. She remembers, “Watching the effects of climate change as it was happening, I started to think about the need to protect ourselves from a future course already in motion.” In 2001, she left the EPA to join the World Wildlife Fund as a staff scientist focused on adaptation. The hire caused dissension within WWF leadership and sparked fierce debate throughout the larger NGO community. “Back then, people heard ‘adaptation’ and thought, ‘Does this mean we aren’t working on mitigation anymore?” By the time the other big green groups followed WWF’s lead, Hansen’s adaptation ambitions had outgrown her position. In 2008, she resigned and founded EcoAdapt with a single $30,000 grant. After conducting what she calls her own private “climate variability study,” she purchased land on a small island off the coast of Washington State — “It’s high land with great freshwater resources,” she says — from which she directs EcoAdapt’s growing activities. The conference in Denver, three years in the making, was the group’s coming out party, funded in large part by the MacArthur Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.
“The idea of EcoAdapt is to push people beyond awareness to the implementation of adaptation measures,” says Hansen. “We’re still going through ebbs and floods, but adaptation is finally part of the zeitgeist. No one in the community is saying that we shouldn’t be doing this.”
This includes prominent figures working on the mitigation side. Among those urging adaptation measures are the climate blogger Joe Romm, and 350.org’s Bill McKibben. The latter tackled adaptation in his recent book, Eaarth, a titular misspelling reflecting the author’s recognition that most of us live on a different planet than the one we were born on. “We’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon,” writes McKibben, “so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations.”
The government’s role in “protecting the core” began when George H.W. Bush signed the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The law created the Global Change Research Program to track climate change, produce quadrennial impact assessments, and coordinate climate policy across departments. (NOAA is on the steering committee.) The Program basically lay dormant for 15 years until the Obama administration dusted its mandate and revived the Program as the spine of an emerging interagency adaptation bureaucracy. The shaping of this bureaucracy is steered by a troika-run Adaptation Task Force, consisting of NOAA, the Office of Science and Technology, and the Center for Environmental Quality. The Task Force recommended that federal agencies begin producing the climate risk-assessment studies mandated back in 1990. The first batch of these studies was made available for public comment in February.
Still, the U.S. remains an adaptation laggard. European states already have national adaptation plans and programs in place — a regional EU bloc initiative was just announced — as do most Asian countries. The small island nations of the Pacific, meanwhile, are drawing up contingency plans for the complete evacuation of their populations. Assisting them in this work is Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, whose director, Michael Gerrard, recently published a tome indicative of the sweeping changes ahead, called, The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change: United States and International Aspects.
Predictably, America’s Creationist party is doing its best to retard U.S. efforts to catch up. Since 2010, GOP-run House Committees have drafted bills to deny adaptation-related funds to NOAA, the Department of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Homeland Security. Most miserably, Republicans blocked U.S. contributions to an international fund to assist small island nations facing existential sea-level threats.
It will provide only the emptiest sort of gratification when the rightwing climate denial machine finally chokes on the drought-stunted fruits of its own labor. A sideshow preview of this epic choking is now playing out in the deep-red statehouse in Bismark, where Republican Reps reading scripts by Big Coal are opposing an adaptation bill to deal with the flooding that threatens to wipe out the state’s agricultural economy. For four out of the past five years, North Dakota has experienced a devastating top-ten flood. NOAA puts the state at the top of the country’s flood risks for this coming summer.
The technical conversation around adaptation will eventually meld with a political one. The sooner this happens, the better. The world coming into view is defined by unprecedented strains on natural and public resources. Which means the big rhetorical question is this: If our current framework of commodified resources and a commercialized biosphere allowed widespread hunger and poverty to persist in an age of abundance, what in the name of Sweet Jesus is it going look like in a return to scarcity?
The connection between climate change and revolutionary social change is one that bridges the mitigation and adaptation debates. Mitigation requires greening and decentralizing the grid, which runaway climate change will demand anyway. Meaningful mitigation also means deep preemptive reductions in the industrial intensity and scale of economic activity and waste, another change that eight degrees would impose on the future anyway. The only question is whether we make these transitions before it’s too late to matter, or after. But in either case, they are transitions with benefits. The relationship between low-impact, human-scale economic activity and more resilient (and more equitable) communities is a running thread in modern environmental literature, from visionary classics like Small is Beautiful, to contemporary small-bore reporting on localism, to activist blueprints like Naomi Klein’s next book (first sketched out in the Nation.)
In Denver, the idea of advancing both mitigation and adaptation goals by building a more democratic green economy was generally described as the “holistic” solution (although exact definitions vary). There were plenty of people like Mike Hughes, very focused on protecting the pipes, but there was also a general awareness that adapting a civilization worthy of the name is about more than deciding where to build seawalls and where to transfer Alaskan salmon. Choosing her words carefully, Lara Hansen described the holistic solution as “the ‘get out of jail free’ opportunity of climate change.” She explained, “There is very little opportunity in climate change, but opportunities exist when we can develop plans that improve our climate resilience while simultaneously increasing our financial and social resilience. our Climate change will be creating plenty of losers without our societal responses making matters worse.”
Katrina and Sandy illuminated the fate of the climate losers, whose advocates in the climate justice community have a head start in thinking in terms of adaptation justice.
“Local adaptation planning often involves making a case for your communities’ vulnerabilities, but there’s a data differential in low-income communities that pose obstacles for infrastructure upgrades,” says Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s climate program. “Climate change exacerbates pre-existing inequalities — in health insurance, in proximity to toxic facilities, in relations with the police, in contact with media and emergency services, in power generally. When the Army Corps of Engineers decides where to build levees, they use an ‘economic impact’ criteria, not the number of people effected.”
In Denver, Patterson ran climate justice workshops based on her travels around the country teaching vulnerable communities Adaptation 101. Among her projects is a joint effort with the Red Cross to locate and assist off-the-grid communities during extreme weather events. One such community on the Louisiana coast is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, screened on the final night of the conference, called Can’t Stop the Water, a sort of true life Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Corporate America, meanwhile, is also moving forward on climate adaptation. They just call it something else. “A lot of companies don’t use the term for fear of alienating conservative employees and investors,” says Joyce Coffee, who advises Fortune 500 companies on environmental issues for Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm. “They label these investments under standard terms like ‘risk avoidance’ or ‘continuity panning,’ but everyone knows it’s all climate related. Major companies used to fear climate change because they thought it meant new regulations. Now they see it is a direct fiscal threat. Any company with a supply chain is thinking about how to avoid climate disruption.”
And pull down maximum climate profits. Predictably, an investment boomlet has emerged seeking to profit from the coming crunches in potable water and arable land. As Bloomberg reports, the scene is crawling with creatures of finance seeking fortunes by creating and cornering regional water markets, trading weather-related derivatives, and landing humongous government contracts in what the UN estimates may soon be a $130 billion adaptation engineering and construction industry. “Not enough people are thinking long term of [water] as an asset that is worthy of ownership,” said one investor. Another, bullish on the future value Australia’s fast dwindling patches of fecund soil, told the magazine, “There is an overemphasis of [climate change’s] negative impacts.”
For those dreaming of climate fortunes, there’s no better first stop than the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index. Since being seeded by the Dallas-based oil and gas equity firm Natural Gas Partners Energy Capital Management, the Index has helped investors “measure the rate of return” in countries in need of adaptation-related loans and projects. Although recently moved to Notre Dame, the Index remains heavily funded by the Natural Gas Partners Foundation, an arm of NGP Capital Management and its $11 billion portfolio spanning every stage of oil and gas production.
While reporting this story, I stumbled on what may be the first use of the word “adaptation” in the context of near-futuristic climate change. I was in bed at my Denver hostel, reading J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. The story (currently being, ahem, adapted for screen by Warner Bros.) takes place in the year 2145, after a freak solar event dissolves the ice caps and forces those who can make it far to Greenland, where a rump human society sits atop a baking, flooded planet newly recolonized by giant iguanas and mosquitos the size of dragon flies. Only the oldest survivors have any memory of the current century, when New York and London were “beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.”
The novel’s use of the word “adaptation” comes when one character describes another as “insufferable. All that stiff upper lip stuff and dressing for dinner in the jungle — a total lack of adaptability.”
Ballard’s 50-year old vision of a few million adaptable survivors huddled in the far north, after adaptation measures were overwhelmed and gave way to a Great Migration, is a worst-case scenario. But it’s a possible one. James Lovelock, the earth systems scientist and father of the Gaia hypothesis, predicted something similar in his 2009 book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Lovelock is not a climate scientist, and he has been weirdly erratic on the issue. Still, Vanishing lays out a conceivable scenario in which we are now moving irrevocably toward a new “hot stasis” that will apply “fierce selection pressures” to humanity. These pressures, he wrote, will reduce humanity drastically, but not extinguish it. The book imagines a Drowned World scenario of pockets of hardy survivors making a “long and hazardous journey” similar to other journeys in human history. “We are a wandering species,” Lovelock concluded. “Mass migration is inevitable.”
Many, including Lovelock, have dismissed this dark prognosis. But the fact is, we just don’t know. If it does turn out that the dreaded feedback loops are in motion, hurtling us toward a Doomsday climate snap later this century, then we’ll likely come to appreciate Lovelock’s weirdly cheery long view, which you could call the epochal, or even the cosmic, perspective. This is the last piece of the adaptation conversation, after the technical, political and ethical ones — what does it mean to live on the cusp of an epoch, to face the possibility of shutting off the lights? There wasn’t much room for bullshitting about anything too airy at the Denver conference, which was packed loud with coastal case studies and bureaucratic flow charts. Only once did I hear the jargon open up to something like the realm of mystery and myth. It was the end of a workshop on the adaptation challenges facing territory-bound Native American tribes. People were beginning to leave and make plans for lunch, when a deep voice arose from the back of the room. It belonged to a mountain-shaped man named Clayton Honyumptewa, director of natural resources for the Hopi Nation.
“Our ancestors predicted all of this,” he said to no one in particular. “The weather changing in strange ways, the destruction of the land, the water, the fish, the animals. They said, ‘The white man will continue to come, and everything will die.’”
It was a long couple of beats before anyone said a word.