01 Jun 2009

Learning to Live With Climate Change Will Not Be Enough

A leading environmentalist explains why drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions now will be easier, cheaper, and more ethical than dealing with runaway climate destabilization later.
By david w. orr

The awareness that humans could alter the climate of Earth has dawned slowly on our consciousness. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius deflected his anguish over a failed marriage into remarkably tedious and, as it turned out, accurate calculations about the effect of CO2 emissions on climate. It was an oddly therapeutic thing to do, but it had no more effect on public attention than the smallest cloud on a distant horizon.

Another 69 years would pass before scientists warned a U.S. president of the potential for serious climate disruption, and still another 30 years before the first report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Now, facing climate destabilization, our choices for action are said to be adapting to a warmer world or mitigating the severity of climate change by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, neither adaptation nor mitigation alone will be sufficient, and sometimes they may overlap. But in a world of limited resources, money, and time we will be forced often to choose between the two. In making such choices, the major issues in dispute have to do with estimates of the pace, scale, and duration of climatic disruption. And here the scientific evidence tilts the balance strongly toward mitigation.

The argument for adaptation to the effects of climate change rests on a chain of logic that goes something like this: Climate change is real, but will be slow and moderate enough to permit orderly adaptation to changes that we can foresee and comprehend. Those changes will, in a few decades, plateau around a new, manageable stable state, leaving the gains of the modern world mostly intact — albeit powered by wind, solar, and as-yet-undreamed advanced technologies.

In other words, the developed world can adapt to climatic changes without sacrificing much. The targets for adaptation include developing heat- and drought-tolerant crops for agriculture, changing architectural standards to withstand greater heat and larger storms, and modifying infrastructure to accommodate larger storm events and rising sea levels, as well as prolonged heat and drought. These are eminently sensible and obvious measures that we must take.

But at some point there are limits to what can be done and the places in which such measures can be effective. With predicted changes in
Arguments for mitigation are rather like those for turning the water off in an overflowing tub before mopping.
temperature, rainfall, and sea level rise, it is unlikely that we can “promote ecosystem resiliency” or adapt to such changes with “no regrets,” as some have suggested. On the contrary, ecological resilience and biological diversity will almost surely decline as climatic changes now underway accelerate, and going forward we will surely have a great many regrets — chiefly of the “why did we not do more to stop it earlier” sort.

Accordingly, more extreme adaptive measures called “geoengineering” are being discussed. These include proposals to fertilize oceans with iron to increase carbon uptake, or injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to increase the reflective albedo and thereby provide temporary cooling. But since the effects of geoengineering are largely unstudied and its risks largely unknown, it is a “true option of last resort” in the words of one analysis. Accordingly, “the best and safest strategy for reversing climate change is to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases,” as a recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests.

Proponents of mitigation, on the other hand, give priority to limiting the emission of heat trapping-gases as quickly as possible to reduce the eventual severity of climatic disruption. The essence of the case for mitigation is that:

Practically, climate mitigation means reversing the addition of carbon to the atmosphere by making a rapid transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Arguments for mitigation, in other words, are rather like those for turning the water off in an overflowing tub before mopping. Those advocating mitigation believe that we are in a race to reduce the forcing effects of heat-trapping gases before we cross various thresholds — some known, some unknown — tipping us into irretrievable disaster beyond the ameliorative effects of any conceivable adaptation.

There are five reasons why focusing on mitigation is a far-better choice than emphasizing adaptation. First, the record shows that climate change is occurring much faster than previously thought, will affect virtually every aspect of life in every corner of Earth, and will last far longer than we’d once believed. The small cloud that Arrhenius saw on the distant horizon in 1896 is growing into a massive storm, dead ahead.

The effects of climatic destabilization, in other words, will be global, pervasive, permanent, and steadily — or rapidly — worsening. Given the roughly 30-year lag between what comes out of our tail pipes and
Adaptation targets will often move faster than we can anticipate as climate disruption becomes manifest.
smokestacks, the climate change-driven weather effects we now see are being caused by emissions that occurred in the late 1970s. What is in store 30 years ahead when the forcing effects of our present 387 parts per million of CO2 are manifest? Or further out when, say, the warming and acidifying effects of 450 parts per million of CO2 — or higher — on the oceans have significantly diminished their capacities to absorb carbon? No one knows for certain, but trends in predictive climate science suggest that they will be much worse than once thought.

The implications for climate response strategies are striking. For example, it is now obvious that impacts will change as atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases rise, meaning adaptation targets will often move faster than we can anticipate as climate disruption becomes manifest in surprising ways. To what climatic conditions do we adapt? What happens when previous adaptive measures become obsolete, as they will?

Similarly, at every level of climate, forcing the changes will be difficult to anticipate, which raises questions of where and when to intervene effectively in complex ecological and social systems. Are there places in which no amount of adaptation will work for long? Given what is now known about the pace of sea-level rise, for example, what adaptive strategies can possibly work in New Orleans or South Florida, or much of the U.S. East Coast, or in those regions that will likely become progressively much hotter and dryer — and perhaps one day mostly inhabitable — under drastically worsened conditions?

Second, the implications of the choice between adaptation and mitigation do not fall just on those able, perhaps, to temporarily adapt to climatic destabilization, but rather on those who lack the resources to adapt, and to future generations who will have to live with the effects of whatever atmospheric chemistry we leave behind. The choice between mitigation and adaptation, in other words, is one about ethics and justice in the starkest form. A few wealthy communities in the developed world may be able to avoid the worst for a time, but unless the emission of heat-trapping gases is soon reduced everywhere, worsening conditions will hit hardest those least able to adapt. The same can be said far more emphatically about future generations.

There is, third, a “stitch in time saves nine” economic argument for giving priority to mitigation. Stabilizing climate now will be expensive and fraught with difficulties, but it will be much cheaper and easier to do it sooner rather than later under much more economically difficult and ecologically harrowing conditions. Nicholas Stern, for one, estimates “that if we don’t act [soon], the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year, now and forever.”

Fourth, efforts to adapt to climate change will run into institutional barriers, established regulations, building codes, and a human tendency to react to — rather than anticipate — events. There are, in economist Robert Repetto’s words, “many reasons to doubt whether adaptive measures will be timely and efficient, even in the U.S. where the capabilities exist.”

In the best of all possible worlds, effective adaptation to the changes to which we are already committed would be complicated and difficult. In the real world of procrastination, denial, politics, and paradox, however,
In the real world of procrastination, denial, and politics, anything like thorough adaptation is unlikely.
anything like thorough adaptation is unlikely. Rather, it will be piecemeal, partial, sometimes counterproductive, wasteful, temporary, and — ultimately — largely ineffective. In contrast, measures pressing energy efficiency and renewable energy, as complicated as they are, will be much more straightforward, measurable, and achievable. And they have the advantage of resolving the causes of the problem, which has to do with anthropogenic changes to the carbon cycle.

Finally, beyond some fairly obvious and prudent measures, federal, state, and foundation support for climate adaptation gives the appearance that we are doing something serious about the looming climatic catastrophe. The political and media reality, however, is that efforts toward climatic adaptation will be used by those who wish to do as little as possible to block doing what is necessary to avert catastrophe.

The conclusion is inescapable: Adaptation must be a second priority to effective and rapid mitigation that limits the scale and scope of climatic destabilization. The priority must be given to efforts toward a rapid transition to energy efficiency and deployment of renewable energy. Until we get our priorities right, the emission of greenhouse gases will continue to rise beyond the point at which humans could ever adapt. In ecologist George Woodwell’s words, “The only adaptation is mitigation.”

We were first warned of global warming over a century ago and have lingered in increasingly dangerous territory in the belief that we can continue to burn massive amounts of fossil fuels without risking serious
The emission of greenhouse gases will continue to rise beyond the point at which humans could ever adapt.
climate destabilization. That fantasy is rapidly coming to an end. According to NASA’s James Hansen, we must move decisively to return CO2 levels to 300 or 350 parts per million. If we wait too long to prevent climate change, we will — perhaps sooner than later — create conditions beyond the reach of any conceivable adaptive measures. With sea level rise now said to be on the order of one to two meters by 2100, for example, we cannot save many low-lying places and species we would otherwise prefer to save. And sea levels and temperatures will not stabilize until long after the year 2100.

There will be unavoidable and tragic losses in the decades ahead, but far fewer if we act to contain the scope and scale of climate change now. No matter what we do to adapt, we cannot save some coastal cities, we will lose many species, and ecosystems will be dramatically altered by changes in temperature and rainfall. Our best course is to reduce the scale and scope of the problem with a sense of wartime urgency. And we better move quickly and smartly, while the moving’s good.


David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College. He is the author of five books, including Design on the Edge: The Making of a High Performance Building. His next book, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, will be published this summer.

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Very good analysis of the solutions on Global Warming. However, I do not agree that the first priority should be energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Indeed these are very important approaches to slow GLobal Warming in the long run, but in the short run, it is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) will reduce the density of CO2 in the atmosphere. The former is more like to defend while the latter attacks the problem directly .

In addition, as we have already passed the tipping point few years ago, what the best we can do is to slow down the Warming to a degree which causes us as less damage as possible. Thus, per to this fact, adaptation is also necessary for us to avoid possible catastrophe. In a nut shell, the priority for us should be CCS, renewable energy development, energy efficiency and adaptation.
Posted by Feng Wang on 02 Jun 2009

The idea that wasting money on a scheme which will have no effect on climate, but will make a lot of money for parasites like the UN and Al Gore, in selling “carbon credits” and setting up a trading exchange for dealing in these useless fantasies, is worth considering, is unspeakable.

Climate change is essential to life on earth, as is CO2. We do not want either of them fought or attacked.

Why anyone writes an article, which is such a waste of time and effort, is beyond me.
Posted by Jock Lenehan on 02 Jun 2009

David Orr has been making good sense for a long time now, and he's spot on with this article. Thinking we can just adapt to the impacts of climate change and not do anything to cut greenhouse gas emissions is worse than foolhardy — it's reckless and dangerous.
Posted by Alan Freund on 02 Jun 2009

People are delusional to believe that the self flagellation of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction will have any significant effect. See the pdf links at to discover what really caused the temperature run up in the 20th century and the proof that it wasn't atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Posted by Dan Pangburn on 02 Jun 2009

Love The article Mr. Orr...
Great article though with brilliant evidence, I sent it to two of my professors at Colby College.
Posted by Alexander Place on 03 Jun 2009

Good introduction of and analysis of the problem, but then Mr. Orr fell into some old cognitive traps. There is no question that we must rapidly reduce emissions. This is a given if we hope to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change. But even if emissions are rapidly reduced at least a 2 C temperature increase is in the pipeline and maybe much more (see the conclusions of the IARU International Scientific Congress on Climate Change held in Copenhagen in March — and the follow up poll of the scientists at that meeting by the Guardian newspaper in London — most believe we will exceed 2 C and are likely to see 3-4 C this century).

Mr. Orr is correct that most species and most societies will not successfully adapt to this type of rapid change — but we can and must prepare for them. Thus, we must change our thinking and focus from 'adaptation' to 'preparation' — just as we prepare for other disasters we must prepare for climate change. This includes building resistance and resiliency and much much more.

Preparation is a different paradigm from adaptation, and our experience is that focusing on preparation builds support for mitigation (while the focus on adaptation reduces support). For example, my program at the UO has for the past two years been engaging local communities in climate preparation. We have consistently found that once people are involved in actions to prepare for the likely local impacts of climate change they become much more focused on taking action to prevent it from growing worse — that is mitigation.

We need to reorient our thinking on this issue.
Posted by Bob Doppelt on 04 Jun 2009

Excellent article. So far politicians are talking about percentage emissions cuts, but very few are willing to talk about the end point of fossil fuels — beyond which we cannot extract or burn any more oil, gas or coal. Such a target is essential if we are to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently.

FYI - David Orr and other leading experts will be debating the stark urgency of climate change, and the possibility of reducing emissions to zero, at a free public conference in Washington, DC, 25-26 June. It's part of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival - see
Posted by Arthur Girling on 08 Jun 2009

There is no doubt that it will be more cost effective and easier to deal with climate change now, rather than waiting to deal with the effects once it happens. We need to take all measures we can to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. I think it will be very difficult with all the emerging economies (such as China and India) around the world. How do you get them to come on board?
Posted by Derrick Packer on 08 Jun 2009

Without detracting from anything David Orr has said, I do think the supposed dichotomy between mitigation, and adaptation, is artificial. In reality, I don't perceive a bias in favour of adaptation as a strategy; rather, it is the case that mitigation is the only strategy that has been getting the official nod until now, and perhaps still.

In practice, mitigation and adaptation will both be pursued to the extent they are possible, and i would suggest that the concept of which is in 'focus' is of academic interest only. They are and will both be in focus.

The problem is rather that mitigation is going to be a tough one, to say the least. As far as i can see, aside from dire predictions, and paper targets, there hasnt actually been any mitigation at all as yet. My expectation is that there wont be any either ie i dont expect there to be any reduction in CO2 emission rates, taking the world as a whole, at all,let alone the meeting of any targets. With the current state of technology, any mitigation will be the classic drop in the bucket, and make no difference to anything that is going to happen. Adaptation might be a tough one too, but being reactive, is likely the only one which will feature.
Posted by alexander stollznow on 12 Jun 2009

Great piece. All this was known twenty years ago. Nobody listened then and nobody is listening now. When scientists stop hedging their bets with "may, could and might" and start using language that removes the gray areas, people "might" listen and begin to take climate change seriously. When the citizens in the rich nations stop worrying about their next road trip and start looking to their kids' future the political will to change "might" manifest itself. Mr Lenehan's comment above is a good illustration of the ignorance that resides in high places. LOL
Posted by Roy Jones on 21 Jun 2009

I love to look at the comments on this issue! What
a breathtaking display of outright ignorance on the
part of climate change deniers - what a
breathtaking display of optimism on the part of
those who are keen on the search for solutions!

Me? I would rather work away on solutions than
snipe away at those who are looking for them. Our
goose might be cooked, but I am no lemming, so
on we go...
Posted by KD Brown on 25 Jun 2009



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