Time to focus on adaptation. (But bye bye Miami)
This morning I interviewed James White, the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research here in Boulder, for KGNU radio’s “How on Earth” science show. White is a paleoclimatologist — he studies ancient climates to understand better how Earth’s climate system works. He has just journeyed back from the Greenland ice sheet, where he has been part of an international science team working on the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling project, or NEEM.
The “lede” for the story I would write based on this interview is pretty astonishing: In White’s view, it’s already too late to turn back the clock on climate change to save low-lying coastal cities like Miami. The ice cores that he and his colleagues drill from Greenland and Antarctica tell us that the last time greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere were as high as they are today, the world was even warmer than it is now, Greenland was largely deglaciated, and sea level was 10 to 15 feet higher.
In the interview, White barely mentioned reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change, although I know he thinks this would be a very good idea. Instead, he emphasized the need for societies to adapt to what he considers to be inevitable and very significant changes.
Click here for MP3 audio of the entire science show, including the interview. (The recording actually includes quite a bit of other material from before the science show, so scroll forward to about 13 minutes into the program, where the White interview begins.)
Below are some of the most significant moments from the interview. I’ve also included some context and my questions (which are not verbatim):
I pointed out that after two summers of work, the NEEM team has drilled down more than 1.5 miles through the Greenland ice sheet, reaching bedrock just last week. The ice Jim White and his colleagues have recovered originally fell as snow during the Eemian interglacial period, from 115,000 to 130,000 years ago. It contains valuable clues about the climate and environment at that time.
I asked White why recovering ice from the Eemian is significant.
“The Eemian, or the last interglacial period, is the last time climate was as warm as it is today. in fact, it was warmer than it is today. And that’s important because as climate warms, we want to know what the impacts are going to be. How much ice is going to melt, how are the climate patterns going to change, are the agricultural areas going to stay the same or are they going to change. And the last interglacial period, being warmer, is a good analogue for the future.”
The Eemian was as warm and perhaps even warmer than it is today. So what insights might the NEEM ice core give us about what could be in store for us in the future?
“First let me make the point that the Eemian . . . was indeed warmer. We have multiple lines of evidence for that . . . We also know that sea level was higher in the Eemian — in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 feet higher than today. Ten to 15 feet may not sound too impressive to us here in Colorado. But, for example, 10 to 15 feet would mean no Miami, no Norfolk Virginia, even Washington D.C. — the Mall would be underwater with 10 to 15 feet of sea level rise.
That’s important because it tells us that these interglacial periods, and climate in general, is not a static thing. We should expect change. We should expect that sea level will change. We should expect that temperatures will change. We should not be surprised that climate changes when we do something as fundamental as adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”
White then pointed out that the 10 to 15 feet of sea level rise that occurred during the Eemian came from ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica. But scientists want to know what were the relative contributions from these ice sheets. And here is where the interview got very interesting:
“If sea level is rising at the rate that it is today, this is something that we can deal with. We’ll lose Miami, for example, but we can perhaps pay for that if we decide that’s the way we want to go. If sea level is rising very rapidly then that makes adaptation more difficult and more expensive.”
That really stopped me. My response: “Lose Miami? Really?”
White responded that most predictions are for roughly 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.
“Go to Google Maps and plug that in and see what Miami looks like. And that’s just by the end of this century. Nobody that I know thinks that sea level is going to stop at a 3 foot rise. It’ll go maybe 10 or 15 feet at least in the next few hundred years. So most coastal cities around the world are going to have to be moved and repopulated elsewhere.
Is there anything we can do not simply to adapt but to prevent climate change and sea level rise?
“Carbon dioxide levels, methane levels, are already very high relative to what we know existed for the last million years. I don’t think that we’re going to turn that around very quickly. We could get into some very serious geoengineering in terms of removing these greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Very expensive things to do.
My feeling is we just need to understand what the science is telling us and make intelligent decisions. I don’t really believe that it’s my role as a scientist to tell policy makers what to do. My role is to tell them this is the information you’re going to get, and we need as a society to make decisions. My pitch as an educator, as a professor, is that those be educated decisions. And whether it’s we’re going to adapt or we’re going to deal with this from a geoengineering sense, it doesn’t really matter to me . . . What matters to me is that we do this with intelligence and that we don’t just deny the obvious.
So we should pay more attention to adaptation?
“I think that adaptation is in our future whether we like it or not. We’re going to have to deal with this problem. You can’t stop physics. You can argue all you want. You can say global warming is not happening all you want, but that’s not going to stop global warming. So we’re going to have to deal with it. We’re going to have to adapt to it. And as I said I think it’s just important for us to do that adaptation with some intelligence. We’re going to have to make choices . . . How are we going to spend our money? We only have so much.”
And then came the kicker:
“We’re the only creature on the planet that can actually think through these things, and we ought to start thinking”