“If they determine an area is needed for flood protection, its residents must move,” The Times reports. “It’s a different story in the United States.”
The limits of adaptation
Just as humanity’s failure to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions has made a necessity of adaptation, so too, if that failure continues, will it make a necessity of suffering. “There are limits to how much the country, and the world, can adapt,” The Times’s Christopher Flavelle, Anne Barnard, Brad Plumer and Michael Kimmelman write. “And if nations don’t do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, they may soon run up against the outer edges of resilience.”
Some of those edges will be found in the world’s food and water systems. At 1.5 degrees of warming, nearly one billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves, and hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. At 2 degrees of warming, coral reefs will all but cease to exist, causing irreversible loss for many marine ecosystems and jeopardizing the ocean food supply.
On land, farmers can adapt to an extent, but the 2018 National Climate Assessment report emphasized that “these approaches have limits under severe climate change impacts.” Yields for such crops as maize, rice and wheat will be smaller at 2 degrees of warming than at 1.5 degrees, according to NASA, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America, and 7 percent to 10 percent of rangeland livestock will be lost. Even now, at just 1.2 degrees of warming, some farmers in drought-ridden California have found it more lucrative to sell off water rights than to grow food.
Even successful adaptation projects may create their own climate threats:
In Louisiana, the vast system of levees and flood walls that has been erected to manage the Mississippi — and that helped keep New Orleans relatively dry during Hurricane Ida — is also causing the southern part of the state to disintegrate, as Elizabeth Kolbert has written.
As extreme heat intensifies, energy-guzzling air-conditioning is fast becoming necessary in places where it wasn’t, which in turn threatens to accelerate global warming.
Such prospects are why, as Young writes, mitigation remains the first line of defense, even if it has already been breached: “We can build all the sea walls, dunes, beaches and marshes we want, but the problem long-term is not what we put on the ground. It is what we put in the air.”
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