We need a Plan B to deal with climate change

Adapting to a changing climate is the only feasible option

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pat MurphyDrawing heavily from physicist Steven Koonin’s recent book – Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Mattersmy last column looked at some of the challenges involved in getting to global carbon-free by mid-century. Koonin actually calls it “a practical impossibility.”

Now let’s talk about contingency planning. If carbon reduction/elimination is our Plan A, what’s Plan B?

To quote from Koonin’s penultimate chapter: “We understand the importance of contingency planning in other areas of our lives – it’s why we buy insurance, why we don’t counsel students to apply to only one college, and so on.”

So if climate change truly is an impending catastrophe, it’d be grossly irresponsible to put all the eggs in one basket and have no contingency plan.

Koonin separates contingency activity into two categories. One is geoengineering, which refers to direct technical intervention to counter the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. The other is adapting to climate change by mitigating its negative implications.

As a general concept, the idea of controlling the weather has been around for a long time. Think of cloud-seeding as an example. And in the context of the modern climate change conundrum, there are two relevant approaches.

Solar radiation management (SRM) aims to “make the earth a bit more reflective (increase its albedo) so that it absorbs a bit less energy from the sun.”

Click here to downloadThe alternative approach – carbon dioxide removal (CDR) – is more direct: it entails sucking some of the carbon back out of the atmosphere, undoing the effect of human emissions.

Technically, neither approach is a blank slate, meaning we have a semi-reasonable idea of how to go about them. But there are serious concerns and drawbacks.

SRM’s biggest issue has to do with possible collateral effects and unanticipated consequences. An extra complication is that negative effects – if any – wouldn’t necessarily impact all geographies to the same extent.

CDR’s huge challenge would be around scale and cost. And the question of where to sequester the retrieved carbon would be particularly thorny.

While Koonin prefers to keep all options on the table, he believes that adaptation is the most feasible Plan B. Further, he thinks we’re going to be pushed that way whether we like it or not.

This is how he puts it: “Given the enormous challenges of effectively reducing human emissions, and the various concerns that make geoengineering likely to be deployed only in extremis, it seems all but certain that our efforts to reduce emissions will be complemented, if not overshadowed, by adaptation to a changing climate.”

Humans have been adapting to climate change for millennia, often without any idea of what might be causing it. If climate change prognostications are right, we at least have the advantage of being forewarned and thus able to get a head start.

There’s also the matter of proportionality. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing from the get-go. For example, barriers to protect threatened coastlines from rising seas can be built incrementally. The Dutch have been successfully improving their dikes for centuries.

And adaptation has another thing going for it. It can be done independently of global consensus and commitment. Indeed, it can even be done at the subnational level.

The difficulty of getting to carbon-free goes beyond the formidable technical and economic challenges. It also depends on getting all countries on board. It’s not enough for Canada, the United States and Europe to sign up and deliver. Everyone, the developing world included, has to do the same.

We’re not talking about promises, speeches or inspirational media vignettes. That’s the easy part.

Rather, we’re talking about wrenching decisions in a world where large numbers of people are still energy-deprived. And prohibiting the use of fossil fuels denies them access to the most affordable and reliable energy source.

Adaptation, on the other hand, can be pursued without the need for global consensus. Countries, or even subnational regions, can do it. Coastal areas at risk of rising sea levels can build protective barriers without having to negotiate with inland areas that don’t perceive the same threat.

There are those, however, who’ll worry that adding an adaptation strategy to the mix might distract people from emission reductions and even facilitate the ongoing use of fossil fuels. In their reckoning, it’s better to burn all boats and bridges so that carbon-free, regardless of cost or even practicality, is the only option.

The rest of us, though, might beg to differ.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the authors’ alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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One Response to "We need a Plan B to deal with climate change"

  1. Reg Harris   October 20, 2021 at 11:13 am

    Thoughts on this subject are with us to stay. I am a non-believer that any ‘solutions’ on the table to date are practical. The costs are prohibitive and not all countries will wish to comply on those grounds alone.

    Most people are in agreement that climate change is number one on the agenda and the time for talking has been long overdue and action is required now.

    Our main concern is the rising temperature and the complementary rise in sea levels. Solve this and most other problems can be put on hold, But, how do we solve this?

    We have a surplus of unusuable water and land once arable is on the decrease. This leads to more starvation which, in turn, leads to millions of pounds, dollars etc being spent on housing and feeding those caught in this unenviable situation. This gradual and becoming faster choking of economies will undoubtedly lead to worldwide anarchy.

    Is this the answer?

    Beginning with land in the earliest stage of encroachment and thereby the easiest to solve only water reserves will suffice. We cannot change the weather adequately so lack of water is the biggest problem.

    Wait a minute! We do have a growing surplus of water but it is unusable in its present form. There have been Desalination schemes before but perhaps they have failed on a large scale because of a lack of finance, science, engineering factors and just the will and right manpower to see this come into realization.

    I do not know how much is currently spent on climate change solutions and the cost of ‘Talk’ and no ‘DO’. If all or most is diverted to a solution that is viable it could be money better spent.

    The costs of setting up viable desalination plants alongside areas most likely to benefit will be very high but if successful there will be a reduction in the need to fund those currently in need. There would be further offset with those successful areas producing sufficiently to help other close-by areas. In addition, the growth of vegetation will provide further improvement to the environment.
    In time, it may be possible to extend beyond the initial chosen areas although it would take longer to convert the erosion.

    If this was seen as a sensible approach in harness with other measures currently under discussion, then hope springs eternal and the world could become a viable home for us and future generations. I am not saying that we could bring barren deserts back to life but we could at least try.

    We currently see liquid which has an economic end transported via enormous pipelines so why not water too? Its value far exceeds oil and gas doesn’t it?


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