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On the Front Lines of Climate Change

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.)

To maintain this level in the face of greater anticipated flows down the Rhine River (thanks partly to accelerated snowmelt in the Alps), the Dutch are radically revising traditional flood-management thinking. Instead of trying to contain floods, they will accommodate the extra water flow by allowing predesignated areas to flood. The strategy is called Living with Water. Near Nijmegen, the oldest town in Holland, a sparsely populated strip of land that is home to farms and a nature reserve will be allowed to flood to spare the more heavily populated areas downstream. Birds in the nature preserve can fly away until the waters recede, but not homeowners, who have protested. One lesson, says Bas Jonkman, an adviser to the Dutch Ministry of Water Management, is that "society must recognize that there will be losers from adaptation, and they must be compensated."

The greatest flood danger to the Netherlands comes from the North Sea, which is more powerful and unpredictable than the Dutch rivers. So, Dutch law has historically required North Sea defenses to deliver a 1-in-10,000-years level of protection. "And now the Parliament wants to raise the North Sea standard to a 1-in-100,000-years level of protection," says Pier Vellinga, a senior government adviser and professor at Wageningen University and Research Center. Vellinga calculates that to maintain this higher level of protection, the Netherlands would have to commit about 0.2% of its GDP annually—some $1.3 billion. The Dutch are straightforward about making adaptation to global warming a high priority. The alternative is the prospect of losing its coastal cities altogether. ("We Are Here to Stay" is the accompanying public slogan.) "We want foreign visitors and investment to keep coming to the Netherlands," Vellinga says, "so we must assure them this will remain a safe place."


The most visible example of British commitment to adaptation is the Thames Barrier, a set of hulking but beautiful silver floodgates that stretch across the namesake waterway about 11 miles downriver from central London. When the Barrier became operational in 1983, 30 years after the massive flood that motivated its construction, planners expected that it might have to close once or twice a year to keep ocean-storm surges from inundating London. In the past decade, however, the Barrier has been closing an average of 10 times a year. "The Barrier was initially designed to offer a 1-in-2,000-years level of protection," says West of the UK Climate Impacts Program. "But sea-level rise is projected to reduce that to a 1-in-1,000-years level by 2030." In response, the British government is prepared to add 12 in. of protection on top of the existing floodgates—a contingency built into its original design—and to keep building patches and extending the Barrier as necessary. Planners in Britain assume it will have to be replaced within 100 years, but they don't yet know with what.

Adaptation isn't just about building a stronger physical infrastructure. A new urban village is being planned 120 miles north of London that will bring together mitigation and adaptation. "Bilston village will not only be a low-carbon-energy user, it will also try to make itself resilient to future climate changes," says West. For example, it will build flood protection into its design. "This could be a new model for how communities can walk on both legs into the climate future."


As a low-lying country that faces the sea and drains 92% of the snowmelt from the vast Himalayan mountain range, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable places on the earth to global warming. Already, sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal and pushing salty water inland, lowering the productivity of rice cultivation in the south of the country. Farmers are adapting by switching land over to prawn farming, which tolerates saltier water.

"Bangladeshis have lived with flooding forever. It's part of our culture and essential to our agricultural system," says Saleemul Huq, who directs the climate-change program for the International Institute for Environment and Development. "In the past, we experienced a very big flood about once every 20 years," Huq says. "But in the last 20 years, we've had four very big floods—in 1987, 1988, 1995 and 2005. So it appears that the new pattern is to get a 1-in-20-year flood every five or 10 years." That increase has gotten policymakers' attention. After years of lobbying by Huq and his colleagues, the Ministry of Water Resources recently agreed to incorporate climate-change models into all future planning and decisions.

But because of its poverty—78% of its population lives on less than $2 a day—Bangladesh cannot afford the kind of defenses planned in Europe, or even New Orleans. As a matter of fairness, Huq says, adaptation measures in poor countries should be subsidized by rich countries. "It is poor countries that are suffering the brunt of climate change," he says, "but it is the rich countries' greenhouse-gas emissions that caused this problem in the first place." Britain is already subsidizing a substantial program in Bangladesh that will raise roads, wells and houses above the level of the last major flood. "Bangladesh is a showcase of what will happen under climate change," says Penny Davies, a diplomat at the British High Commission in Dhaka. "It amounts to a testing ground for what island states, including Britain, will need to do to protect ourselves in the years ahead."

New Orleans

By that same logic, the U.S. should be trying to climateproof New Orleans. Much of the city is already below sea level, making its lessons all the more valuable for other coastal communities. Ivor van Heerden, director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, has long urged a big-picture approach to hurricane protection. Restoring coastal wetlands, he says, is as important as building sound levees. During a hurricane, wetlands act like speed bumps, absorbing the force of incoming storm surges so that they are weaker when they reach inland. Louisiana's wetlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate because of imprudent levee building and oil-and-gas development.

Van Heerden calls his three-layered plan "defense in depth": "For your inner layer of defense, you put hardened levees or flood walls in front of major population centers or other high-value assets. You protect that inner layer with a middle layer comprised of as large an expanse of wetlands or swamp as possible. Finally, you protect that middle layer with a third layer—barrier islands out in the ocean proper, which also act to absorb and weaken storm surges."

The Army Corps of Engineers and the government of Louisiana are each preparing plans for flood defense and coastal restoration. But after the Corps's disastrous performance during Katrina, many locals distrust it. The state worries that the Corps, despite reassurances from the director of its civil-works division, will shortchange wetlands protection in favor of its traditional preference for large levees. "We're not going to let them go down that road," says Robert Twilley, chief scientific adviser to the state's planners. "If we don't restore our wetlands, the levees won't last and neither will our economy."

In Louisiana, as elsewhere, smart adaptation requires a lot more than good infrastructure and ecosystem management. Economic viability is also important, and that is not possible without insurance. In Louisiana and Florida, insurance companies responded to the burst of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 by raising rates significantly, even canceling policies outright. How can hurricane-prone states retain coverage? "The only solution is to get the Federal Government to do what it did after September 11 and recognize that some risks are too large and costly for the private-insurance market to absorb on its own," says James Donelon, the state insurance commissioner of Louisiana. The Terrorism Re-Insurance Act of 2002 made $100 billion in federal money available as a backstop for buildings vulnerable to terrorism. Donelon advocates a similar fund for cities threatened by climate change.

The U.S. has a long way to go before it is climateproof, but so does most of the world. Japan has an impressive, long-standing system of flood control, including the so-called G-Cans project, a massive underground system in Tokyo that can pump 200 tons of water per second out of rivers and into the harbor before the city's streets flood. But former city officials acknowledge that Tokyo's system has reached its capacity. Since global warming is expected to bring Japan more frequent torrential rains, Tokyo will have to upgrade its drainage and sewage systems.

The latest science makes it clear that we will be living with global warming for the rest of our lives. That's not a happy thought, but it's not necessarily dire either. The key is to follow the new rules of life under global warming. Think ahead, adapt as necessary and make sure to cut greenhouse emissions in time. Adaptation won't be cheap. It won't be optional either.

Originally published on March 29, 2007 in Time magazine. Copyright � 2007 by Mark Hertsgaard. Reprinted with permission. Copying or republication of the work is prohibited without the author's expressed, written consent.


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