HAVING LONG BEEN AN OPTIMIST that science or engineering solutions would reverse and solve our climate change crisis, I’m now beginning to think that it’s too late. We may still be able to slow it down a bit, but barring any last-minute breakthroughs is unlikely we will reverse climate change. The earth will continue to get hotter, and the oceans will rise. For how long, we don’t know.
So, it’s now time to stop thinking it might not happen, and deal with it: It’s adaptation time!
We can take comfort from the fact that we may have some control over slowing down the warming speed, giving us more time to adapt. More importantly, it can be comforting to remember that adaptation is something that humans—when pressed—are actually good at. We are now sorely pressed, and now is the time for humans to start adapting, before we are overwhelmed by “climate despair.”
The Big Lie
Many see climate change as largely a “next generations problem.” But we have been lying to those generations, giving them false hope. The things we’ve been teaching our young people to do to help to reverse climate change—recycle, use less water, turn off lights— will not make enough of a difference even if everyone were to do them. We all wish climate reversal could happen. But our planet goes through cycles of cooling and warming, and we seem to be going into a cycle that is hotter. The climate we know from our personal experience—the climate that many of us enjoy, and that most of us have built our lives and cultures around—will almost certainly disappear.
If climate change is irreversible, how much of it was human-caused versus naturally-caused is moot. (I do not say this to keep people from trying everything they can to reverse it—science and planet-scale engineering may yet help us.) But even if global warming is theoretically reversible, humanity seems to lack the collective will to do what it takes. Concerted global action seems unlikely to happen, no matter how many targets we set.
The Economist’s reviewers of the recent book Nomad Century were struck by the book’s maps that show just how much of the earth will be uninhabitable in a 4° C-warmer world. They write that “A wide strip around the equator, home to some 3.5 bn people, becomes lethally hot. Most places south of Britain and north of Patagonia become so grim that few would want to live there.” Yet most of the current adult generation will not move until totally forced to—either by lethal heat, or by actually being under water.
So, now is the time to be thinking, in positive ways, about planning, organizing and promoting large-scale adaptations. We have seen, in our times, just how disruptive large migrations of very different peoples can be without a plan. The Greenland Ice Shelf and Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier are beginning to crumble, which will likely cause multi-foot rises in sea levels. Inhabitants of island nations would do well to be thinking about their adaptation strategies—including moving. Where would they go? How much adaptation would be required, both physically and culturally?
The time to start considering this is now, because many think the massive population migrations to cooler climates will lead to large-scale violence. We can only mitigate that—or avoid it, possibly—by being ready. Planning—and getting most people to accept and implement the plans— is the only way that ALL of humanity—and not those lucky enough to be in the “future livable” climate zones—will have a fighting chance of surviving the upheavals.
We Need the Young
This is where our young people come in. It is time for adults to stop teaching young people about small things they can do to help the planet, and to get them working collectively on big adaptive solutions—and preparing them to implement some harsh ones. Youth, I believe, are generally more adaptable than older folk. They may also be, in these times, more tolerant of changes, and more willing to move to different lifestyles (e.g., smaller houses, no individual car ownership, etc.) if required. If welcomed, they can likely integrate into new cultures far more easily as well.
Humans’ “adaptability quotient” does vary from person to person and from place to place. Now would be a good time to start finding the means to assess it, and to start creating new places and mechanisms—such as Empowerment or Adaptation Hubs—for putting changes into practice.
Now would also be a good time to start encouraging our younger generations to connect globally around their common future. For example, if enough of them accept that massive re-locations are coming, they could—with their new technological connectivity— start building bridges and relationships, sharing ideas, and breaking down barriers that would cause conflicts. I believe young people could more easily get excited about building something new in and for their times, and not see—as many older people will—only pain and disruption.
It is hard to imagine places we live becoming un-liveably hot and our beautiful beaches disappearing. Even when we personally experience the pain of warming effects we too often relax when things temporarily go back to “normal” again. We grasp at any straws.
But that will not help our children and grandchildren, into whose stewardship planet Earth is now coming. We should give them a chance to shape it as they think is best.
I am a part of the older generation. I love the planet we all live on. But I am also a “re-framer” who tries to help people see things in new ways—and I am a huge optimist about today’s young people and their ideas. Were I still young, and knew what I—and we—know now, I wouldn’t be listening to adults telling me about “the 100 little things I can do to reverse climate change,” or “projects I can do in my community to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.” Those things are not worthless, but I would understand that they are distractions from the true, pressing problem. I would be thinking that now is the time for climate adaptation. Hey, kids—IT’S ADAPTATION TIME!!
Marc Prensky, a “usefully radical” thinker and visionary, is the coiner of the terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, both now in the Oxford English Dictionary. He was formerly at the Boston Consulting Group, and is the author of 10 books, the most recent of which is EMPOWERED!: Re-framing ‘Growing Up’ for a New Age.