Monday, August 29, 2011

Survival by Adaptation

As nature's fury subsides, the sea grows calm again, clear blue skies and sunshine return, and the wreckage is cleared away, we bid farewell to Hurricane Irene and return to our normal (such as that is) lives.  Some say the warnings were exaggerated and foolish.  Others will say, and rightly so, that New York City dodged a bullet.  Tragically, New Orleans wasn't so lucky.  Which city will be next?

Once again, science fiction laps at the shores of everyday reality.  Time was, a tidal wave threat to the towering skyscrapers of New York was confined to sci-fi films.  We just got a taste of the new reality.  The hurricane that just swept menacingly up the eastern seaboard was unprecedented in size; seen from space, it was a living horror that only a few short years ago, existed only in the minds of climatologists and science fiction writers.  Like all storms, its power dissipated as it moved inland.  But, the power of storms continues to increase as the ocean's temperature continues to rise due to man-made climate change.

In the space of a decade, climate change has altered our planet more dramatically than even sci-fi had ever envisioned.  New frontiers have opened in a world that supposedly ran out of them a long time ago.  There are now adventurers setting out to row to the north pole; a physical impossibility not long ago.  Once foreboding and impenetrable walls of ice receding, regions of this globe, some at towering altitudes once inaccessible to Man, are now becoming tourist attractions.  As the ice continues to melt, strange new forms of deep sea life, exotic and beautiful beyond the ability of even the most fertile imaginations to conceive are being seen by human eyes for the first time.  But, there is devastation as well.  Species diversity is dwindling as the noble polar bear and many other species are threatened with extinction.  Wildfires, floods and violent storms plague the United States while drought devastates Africa.

Human industry is the cause of these unnatural changes.  But though, as a species, we had the power to bring these changes about, we seem to lack either the ability or the will to reverse them.  Some say it's already too late to reverse the effects of climate change, and that we'd better get busy adapting to the inevitable challenges ahead.  It is undeniably true that the ability to adapt is the difference between survival and extinction for any species, ourselves included.  But, how are we to adapt to so rapidly changing a world?  Recent history has grimly demonstrated that entrenched economic interests, bloated corporations and their political servants will continue to make difficult, if not impossible, any meaningful federal-level legislation to reduce carbon emissions.

But, in making meaningful changes to our nation's energy grid, slowing down the rate of climate change and working toward adapting ourselves to those effects already on the way, smaller may be better.  More can perhaps be accomplished at the city level than at the federal level. (see September issue of Scientific American.) New Orleans (and now New York) was our wake-up call.  Some cities are already modifying architectural and energy production strategies toward the twin goals of reducing carbon emissions and making cities better prepared to weather the next superstorm to come their way.  The vision of several mayors and urban planners is to make the cities of the future greener and more energy efficient, in order to preserve our environment and our way of life.  Since the federal always, torn by self-serving political agendas and rivalries...has failed to pass any meaningful overall standard of carbon emissions, it may now be up to cities to coordinate such standards between them.  And, since the poor would (as usual) be hit the hardest by the deleterious effects of climate change, it would behoove city governments serious about reducing carbon emissions to reach out to those communities in the greatest need and help them to conserve and use energy wisely and efficiently.

Adapting to climate change may eventually trigger a brave new world of creative and scientifically guided urban planning, and a genuine effort to narrow the gap between rich and poor and work toward economic justice (something every society needs to do in order to create a healthy and thriving democracy.)  Change for the sake of survival is what shapes a species.  But, as we are the only species that consciously creates it's own circumstances, we are, for better or worse, truly the masters of our fate.