By Mark Schapiro / Capital & Main
For decades, climate trackers and journalists talking about adaptation were scorned: Learning how to live with a warming planet was perceived as a diversion from the goal of cutting emissions from fossil fuels. Adaptation was a cop-out, an acceptance of the blistering changes ahead.
But last month the United Nations sent the clearest message yet that it’s time to prioritize adaptation to a world being transformed by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Every year since the U.N. issued its last assessment of the climate eight years ago, the emission of greenhouse gases has increased. The 2015 Paris climate accord set a goal of holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) of preindustrial levels. The International Panel of Climate Change’s most recent report, released last month, says warming is “more likely than not” on course to surpass that limit by 2040, even in the unlikely event that the most aggressive emission-reduction scenarios are pursued in the U.S. and Europe.
The voluminous, fact-filled report states we are already in the midst of severe climate disruptions: Adaptation is urgent, and we must do so in ways that do not exacerbate already-deep inequalities.
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For journalists, the report suggests, now is the time to expand the focus of serious reporting onto the multiple responses to climate change as communities from the local to the regional to the state and international level struggle to adapt.
The IPCC has the daunting task of corralling the world’s leading scientists into a consensus on what the science says about the tumultuous climatic changes underway. It’s now recognized that how we live with the increasing frequency of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events — and the multiple consequences of those ecological derangements — is central to how we navigate into an increasingly volatile future.
The IPCC report is also a reminder that to report on climate change — the biggest story of our time — is to start small. The report and its companion, a more compact 36-page Summary for Policymakers, is filled with every possible color combination to indicate rising sea levels, declining crop yields and the ways in which landscapes are being deformed by melting glaciers, but the action journalistically is as close to the ground as possible. Climate adaptation stories often start small and cascade outward.
Some startling nuggets to kick off any local reporting pop out in the cavalcade of disturbing news delivered by the IPCC. Start with the heat: Global surface temperature, the IPCC says with “high confidence” (a measure of the strength of scientific consensus on this assertion), has increased faster since 1970 than in any other 50-year period over at least the last 2,000 years. Heat is a growth field in the climate realm, and is likely to be shaping every one of the other journalistic beats — with financial, political and health consequences, as this package in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists points out. Heat has even given rise to an entirely new position in municipal government — that of chief heat officers, operating in Southwestern cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, where they are in charge of helping citizens deal with the health and financial repercussions of increasing temperatures. Hard to think of a more visceral way to illustrate what’s coming our way than figuring out what a resident “heat officer” has to do every day, including on the days when other sides of that coin, the cold and rain, are also made more extreme by climate change.
Or maybe you’re on the sports desk, in which case this chart might come in handy. It’s from Climate Central, which tracks how, since 1970, the temperature during baseball season has risen an average of 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit across the 27 Major League Baseball cities. Rising temperatures will make extreme heat and rain events more frequent, which can not only lead to more postponed games, but can also put the health of players and fans at risk, the report said.
Adaptation for Whom?
Of course, adaptability is just a word until you put it to the test of what it means on the ground, in the gritty and expensive business of sea walls, levees, insurance actuarial tables, the integrity of municipal water and sewage systems, all the way down to the planting of trees on city streets.
The benefits of tree cover in hot climates, for example, is well documented for humans and other animals. Question one: Where are they planted? In 92% of U.S. communities, according to this recent peer-reviewed study, richer neighborhoods have about 15% more tree cover and are around 3 F cooler than resource-poor neighborhoods. Such discrepancies can have profound health impacts; a study published in Frontiers in Public Health reported on the health benefits of proximity to green spaces and found that as many as 38,000 premature deaths in U.S. metropolitan areas over the past two decades could have been prevented with greater access to such green spaces.
Adaptation is expensive; it’s also a financial story. The Office of Management and Budget estimated last year that the federal government could be on the hook for $25 billion-$128 billion annually for disaster relief from events arising out of climate extremes, such as floods, droughts, wildfires and crop failures. Disaster relief is what happens when adaptation fails. And the effort to avoid or soften the impacts of cataclysmic climate extremes often presents major financial and design questions worth reporting on: hard or soft sea walls, allowing fields to flood or not, raising or eliminating levees?
Reporting on adaptation strategies can be a poignant way to explore the deep inequalities that pervade our responses to climate change. As the IPCC report states, in its understated language: “Vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected.” That applies on a global level and is also a radiating truth running through the experience of climate change in the United States. In other words, who gets the resources to adapt?
The residents of the Pajaro Valley in California, a community made up largely of Latino farmworkers, learned the answer to that question recently when their town flooded during a recent spate of atmospheric rivers. The Army Corps of Engineers knew for years of potential cracks in the levees protecting the community from floods, but the collective land values in the town failed the cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers with regard to updating the levee needed to protect the town. Such discrepancies are no doubt rampant across this state and other locales prone to the double edges of climate chaos: deluge and drought.
While the IPCC found that the average annual greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2019 were higher than in any other previous decade for which records were kept, it also found that the rate of increase in those emissions were notably less than the rate of increase in the previous decade. That’s the hopeful sign in this year’s report. The IPCC insists that the climate narrative is still being written, and can change. Action by governments and industries to implement “deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” would significantly slow the rate of climatic shifts over the next two decades. The scientists cite the plunging costs of renewable energy and potentially new carbon capture technologies as two of numerous signs that such a goal can be accomplished.
Companies, also, are adapting to the new climate realities on multiple levels, some of them legitimate, others a smokescreen, and it is essential to hold them to account. That suggests the need for sharp journalistic eyes on the claims of companies trying to position themselves in the new climate-aware marketplace. Here’s a handy guide on how to identify whether “net zero” — which I also wrote about in a recent column — commitments are real, from the Clean Energy Wire, a think tank and news service. (The CEW is based in Germany, but its methodologies for assessing corporate behavior apply globally).
The IPCC, utilizing diplomatic language, has a way to describe what this actually means: “Ambitious mitigation pathways imply large and sometimes disruptive changes in existing economic structures.” What that means is a dramatic drop in the extraction and use of oil, coal and natural gas, and a concomitant reduction in those industries’ influence on political levers of power.
Meanwhile, we are heading into a 1.5 degrees warmer world which, for journalists, means applying the same reporting rigor to adapting to the new reality as we do to documenting it and holding those companies to account.
Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist specializing in the environment. His most recent book, Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply, an investigation into the struggle to control the seeds capable of resilience to climate change, will be published in paperback in January. He is a Lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Previous books include Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, an investigation into the health and economic consequences of toxic chemicals, and The End of Stationarity: Searching for the New Normal in the Age of Carbon Shock, which reveals the trap doors of the economic system that hides the costs and consequences of climate change.