Thursday, December 27, 2007

The trouble with climate 'adaptation'

Modesto Bee, via Newsweek: Two words: airport runways.

As scientists and policy types figure out what changes will be necessary to cope with global warming, it's obvious that massive sea walls will be required to hold back rising oceans, that enormous reservoirs will be needed to cope with the alternating droughts and deluges that many regions will suffer and that a crash program to develop heat- and drought- resistant crops would be a good idea if people are to keep eating. But it's the less-obvious, yet no-less-necessary, adaptations to climate change that are likely to wreak havoc.

So, runways: hotter air, which we'll have more of in a greenhouse world, is less-dense air (hence, hot air rises). In less-dense air, says Bernoulli's principle, for planes to gain lift and stay aloft, they need to take off faster. Ergo, airport runways will need to be longer to give planes the requisite ground speed before they can take off. Will someone please tell Chicago's massive O'Hare Airport?

… Though some adaptations will be modest and low-tech, such as cities establishing cooling centers to shelter residents during heat waves, others will require such Herculean efforts and be so costly that we'll look back on the era beginning in 1988, when credible warnings of climate change reached critical mass, and wonder why we were so stupid as to blow the chance to keep global warming to nothing more extreme than a few more mild days in March.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which just picked up its Nobel Peace Prize, we are in for a minimum of 90 more years of warming, no matter how many Hummers are junked in favor of Priuses. The reasons are atmospheric (greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide remain aloft for about a century) and political (the world can't summon the will to reduce greenhouse emissions).

…The required adaptations will be much more profound than turning up the air conditioning a notch come summertime. Melting glaciers will trigger "glacier lake outburst floods," warns the IPCC; if you have a child wondering which field to enter, dam-engineering looks like an excellent bet.

Permafrost is melting, so villages and roads in the (once) frozen north that are built on it will have to be relocated. Sea-level rise is inundating the wetlands and mangrove swamps that once absorbed storm surges; sea-wall design and construction also will be a growth industry, at least in areas that can afford it. For the tens of millions of Bangladeshis and other impoverished people living in coastal regions that will be underwater, inland areas can "adapt" by making room for unprecedented waves of environmental refugees.

In a warmer world, the atmosphere holds more moisture. When moist air collides with Arctic air, freezing rain falls. That coats power lines with ice and causes them to snap, cutting power to thousands, as it did last week in the Midwest.

…Money is beginning to trickle into such efforts. The Rockefeller Foundation is putting $70 million into a "climate-change resilience" program to help the developing world cope. A climate bill in Congress would take some of the money raised from auctioning off permits to emit carbon dioxide and use it to fund adaptation research (though some want to give the permits to industry gratis).

Of course, if we do as competent a job adapting to climate change as we've done preventing it, short runways will be the least of our problems.

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