Weathering Change: Mitigation, Adaptation, and Suffering

28 February 2013
Published in Environment
Written by  Kim Schuske
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In the first installment of our Weathering Change series, Glaciers Melt, Water Rises, renowned climatologist Lonnie Thompson gives a first-hand account of the world's retreating glaciers. Now he addresses possible responses: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.


LONNIE THOMPSON: What are our options in society for dealing with climate change?

Mitigation is taking steps where we would reduce our emissions of green house gasses. Or we can talk about how do we capture those and sequester them: take them out of the atmosphere. Or we can talk about what we might do with geoengineering to reduce the impacts of warming on the earth system. Realizing that each of those, particularly geoengineering, has the potential of unintended consequences when you implement anything on a large scale.

But, these are things that we need to be considering.

Adaptation means looking forward in time at the change that's already underway and will be taking place. The problem is we have a 20 to 30 year lag, so we've already built in a change. We're going to lose a large percentage of the world's mountain glaciers.

There are countries now, like Peru, where 76% of their power is hydroelectric. They have two-thirds of their people living out on the deserts of the west coast depending on rivers. In many cases [the rivers are] sourced from glaciers in the Andes, and all of those glaciers are reducing in size.

These are changes that are going to come, so there needs to be plans in place. How are you going to adapt to this changing water supply, this changing energy supply? You need to start planning for those things now.

KIM SCHUSKE: So have you seen movement in that way?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I've heard a number of discussions on national security. You know, we have at least 20 nations on the planet that could topple. If you're talking about national security the worse case scenario is a world with lots of failed states.

What pushes them over that threshold? It can be a major drought. It can be flood like in Pakistan last year. At the time that a government can no longer respond to the needs of it's citizenry, you have the chance of a failed state.

These are things that we need to look at when we're considering adapting.

And then of course the third option is suffering.

History would tell us that those who suffer are usually those who are least responsible for the changes that are taking place, and they also have the least resources to adapt to those changes.

KIM SCHUSKE: So what are some of the possibilities of things that we could change?

LONNIE THOMPSON: The fact is that 80% of the energy we use to light our streets goes to space and it has no value. We need to be more efficient about how we use the energy we're already consuming.

If we were using that energy, rather than lighting space, to charge electric cars, then we could reduce our energy consumption during the day when we drive to work and the like.

I think there are a lot of things out there that we can do when we really get serious about changing the track that we're on.

KIM SCHUSKE: But the cost of limiting carbon and things like that, is that going to be the block?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I think any reasonable person or nation looking at the energy needs, and growth in energy needs, realizes we have to have other sources of energy to fuel the economies of the future.

The sooner we start making major investments in those, the sooner we can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and what that implies for our future climate.

KIM SCHUSKE: So when you started getting into this field did you expect it to end up in the place that it's at now? That governments have to start making decisions about what they're going to do?

LONNIE THOMPSON: I've tried to look back at the past at environmental issues and I can give a couple examples.

You can look at soil conservation in the United States and you can look at, when did we actually take action on this issue?

Well it wasn't until April 19, 1935. A bright sunny afternoon in Washington, D.C. Hugh Bennett is there. There was a hearing of senators, and he gets a call from Chicago. There was twelve million tons of dust that fell on Chicago from a dust storm coming out of Oklahoma. Knowing that storms go from the west to the east, pretty soon the skies start to darken in Washington, D.C. All of the senators are looking out the window, and the next day the Soil Conservation Act is passed.

Suddenly it was in their face and they saw that we have to do something here, and they did.

KIM SCHUSKE: So what will that be for this?

LONNIE THOMPSON: It's a very good question and in some ways the scale of the problem is much larger because it's not just the U.S., it's a global issue.

And it has this lag time in it of 20 to 30 years, so that even when you decide to act, you will have already built in significant change and adaptation that will have to take place.

The longer we wait, the greater the change, the adaptation, and the suffering will be.


Lonnie Thompson is Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and a Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University. Last year he underwent a heart transplant but he still has plans to go to Tibet where, according to National Geographic, he hopes to find the oldest ice on earth.

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