December 5, 2009

Climate Discussions Shift From Prevention To Preparation

Regardless of whether rising global temperatures are being caused by humans or due to cyclically changing weather patterns, experts have begun warning that practical steps must be taken to protect densely populated areas around the world, according to an Associated Press report. 

Climate treaty or no climate treaty, humans have to start preparing for worst-case scenarios by building larger, stronger dams and seawalls, restructuring water systems and elevating buildings.

Infrastructure adaptation is one of many topics slated to be discussed at the U.N. climate-change negotiations that will be kicked-off in Copenhagen next week.

The very fact that such practical steps for dealing with global warming have made it onto the discussion agenda represents a major shift in the tenor of the debates.  Many say that the topic has hitherto been largely avoided for fear that it would divert attention from what many saw as the root problem: nipping climate change in the bud by reducing carbon emissions.

"It's something that's been neglected, hasn't been talked about and it's something the world will have to do," said chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachauri.

"Adaptation is going to be absolutely crucial for some societies."


And once again, scientists find themselves taking cues from nature's remarkable ability to adapt to changing environmental circumstances.

In England, etymologists had been anticipating the extinction of the exceedingly rare Adonis blue butterfly since it was not capable of long distance flight as changing temperatures were slowly making its natural niche uninhabitable.

But in recent studies of the butterfly, scientists have observed that the population has evolved longer thoraxes and wings, allowing it to fly longer distances in search of cooler habitats.

According to Texas A&M biologist Camille Parmesan, humans ought to be taking notes from the Adonis blue.

"Society needs to be changing as much as wildlife is changing," said Parmesan, an expert in the phenomenon of how species change in response to fluctuating global temperatures.

Some scientists, however, say that the rapid rate at which temperatures are changing presents unique difficulties for more both slowly adapting animals and human societies.

Jane Lubchenco, chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that responding to these changes could be "particularly challenging because the rate of change is escalating and is moving outside the range to which society has adapted in the past."

Still, others contend that humans today have a remarkable repertoire of technology that was unavailable to societies just a few hundred years ago, and that this could serve to offset whatever disadvantages may arise from the accelerated rate of change.


Not content to wait until the U.N. sorts out a climate treaty, governments around the planet at all levels have begun taking practical steps to fortify their infrastructures.

Authorities in the Netherlands have begun reinforcing their critical flood control system, while the British government has started projects to strengthen flood barriers along the length of the Thames River.

The municipal government in Boston has opted to invest in an elevated sewage treatment plant to prevent potentially dangerous overflow should sea levels rise too high.

The state of California, despite its current economic debacle, is doling out millions to redesign their crucial gating systems that moves and directs water throughout the agriculturally rich Sacramento River Delta.

Flush with cash, the up-and-coming economic mini-superpower Singapore plans to invest nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into the completion of a dam and canal system that would reduce the city's flood-prone areas by fifty percent.

And the list goes on.

As U.S. President Barack Obama tries to twist arms in Congress to obtain a $1.2 billion a year donation to international climate aid fund, the U.N. chief of climate change says that a minimum of $10 to $12 billion a year will be necessary to "kick-start" adaptation preparation programs in the world's poorest countries.

But the initial figures are likely rise significantly according to The World Bank, which estimates that global investments in infrastructure adaptation will be more in the $75 billion to $100 billion a year ball park within 40 years.

Others say that even these numbers are too optimistic.

Chris Hope, professor of business at the University of Cambridge and member of the London-based think tank The International Institute for Environment and Development, predicts that $200 to $300 billion are more realistic estimates.

Exponentially more expensive, however, would be a failure to revamp and adapt existing infrastructures, says Hope.


Image Caption: Aerial view of a broken levee and the resultant flooding on the Sacramento River in the Sacramento River delta. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is repairing the levee. Credit: Michael Nevins, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


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