On the Front Lines Of Climate Change

Adapting to a warmer planet. The world's most vulnerable coastal communities are taking action now for a future of rising oceans and more severe floods. What America's cities can learn from them

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Joe Nishizawa

A worker stands inside the water pressure control pool in the G-Cans Project, one of the world’s largest underground river construction projects, in the eastern part of Saitama prefecture, Japan.

With his curly, salt-and-pepper hair and thoughtful demeanor, Chris West looks like just another mid-career professor as he crosses the streets of Oxford University. But West, trained as a zoologist, is more an activist than an academic these days. From his cramped office around the corner from Balliol College, he directs the government's UK Climate Impacts Program, which educates individuals and businesses in Britain about the risks they face from climate change and the ways to cope with it.

Not long ago, West says, a DuPont executive boasted to him about how well his company was now treating the environment. Jolly good, West replied, but was DuPont also prepared for how the environment might treat DuPont? "I asked how many of his company's 300-odd facilities around the world were located in floodplains," West says. Global warming will bring increased risks to anyone located in a floodplain. "He didn't know," West recalls. "I said, 'Don't you think you should?'"

For years, global warming was discussed in the hypothetical--a threat in the distant future. Now it is increasingly regarded as a clear, observable fact. This sudden shift means that all of us must start thinking about the many ways global warming will affect us, our loved ones, our property and our economic prospects. We must think-- and then adapt accordingly.

When climate scientists use the word adaptation, they are referring to actions intended to safeguard a person, community, business or country against the effects of climate change. Its complement is mitigation--any measure that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, such as drawing power from a wind turbine rather than a coal-fired power plant. Mitigation addresses, if you will, the front end of the global-warming problem; by cutting emissions, it aims to slow rising temperatures. Adaptation is the back end of the problem--trying to live with the changes in the environment and the economy that global warming has and will continue to generate.

For years, adaptation was overlooked or disparaged in policy circles; many complained that even discussing it was a sellout that gave governments and others an excuse not to act. Today adaptation has become an accepted part of the discussion. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will be released April 6 in Brussels, makes it official. "Adaptation to climate change is now inevitable," says Roger Jones of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, a co-author of the IPCC report. "The only question is whether it will be by plan or by chaos." Jones, like the other contributors to the IPCC report whom I interviewed, speaks here only for himself.

The need for adaptation is rooted in the unhappy fact that we can't turn global warming off, at least not anytime soon. The momentum of the climate system--carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades, while oceans store heat for centuries--ensures that no matter how much humanity cuts greenhouse-gas emissions, our previous emissions will keep warming the planet for decades. Even if we were to magically stop all emissions today, "temperatures will keep rising, and all the impacts will keep changing for about 25 years," says Sir David King, chief science adviser to the British government. So while we strive to green our economies, we must also mount a major new effort to strengthen our resilience against the impact on the climate that our past emissions have set in motion.

Public discussion of global warming in the U.S. is years behind the rest of the world, and adaptation is no exception. "You can't adapt to a problem you don't admit exists," notes Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute, another IPCC co-author. The U.S. has only recently acknowledged global warming, while other countries are already taking concrete action to prepare for its impact. The Netherlands has some of the strongest flood defenses in the world and is making them stronger. Britain has doubled spending on flood and coastal-defense management, to about $1 billion a year. France, Spain and Finland have launched less ambitious adaptation initiatives. Even Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest nations, is taking action.

Nevertheless, adaptation has implicitly emerged on the American agenda, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. The earth's weather system is too complex to pin blame for Katrina definitively on global warming. But unusually strong hurricanes like Katrina are exactly what scientists expect to see--along with fiercer heat waves, harsher droughts, heavier rains and rising sea levels--as global warming intensifies. If the nation is serious about rebuilding New Orleans and its neighbors, it must make them as resilient to global warming as possible. "We have to fight for New Orleans," says Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. (Her house took on 8 ft. of water after Katrina.) "If we're vigilant, we can make New Orleans the safest coastal city in the world and then use it as a model for how the rest of the country can get ready for global warming."

Unfortunately, New Orleans today remains far from that ideal. Robert Bea, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former oil-industry engineer, co-authored a landmark report for the National Science Foundation that analyzed why the Federal Government did such a poor job of protecting Louisiana before and after the storm. Most of the problems he identified persist, he says. And that is not Louisiana's problem alone, Bea emphasizes. The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that 122 major levee systems are less than safe; those levees will face greater stresses with global warming. Extra-strong hurricanes will threaten cities along the entire Gulf and Atlantic coasts. New York City is overdue for a major hurricane; global warming raises the odds.

"All Americans should look carefully at what is and isn't happening in New Orleans," says Mark Davis, professor of environmental law at Tulane University. "If we can't marshal the money, technology and political will to succeed here, I wouldn't be confident we'll do much better in your part of the country either." Meanwhile, Americans can look abroad for examples of how to prepare for climate change.

The Netherlands

It's no surprise that The Netherlands has one of the best records in the world on adaptation. The Dutch have been coping with their low-lying location for nearly 800 years. Dutch law requires that river defenses deliver so-called 1-in-1,250 protection--that is, that they limit the odds of catastrophic system failure and consequent flooding to 1 in 1,250 years. (By comparison, New Orleans' defenses offered 1-in-100-years protection.)

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