Here’s a ridiculously extreme best case scenario: everywhere in the world, we immediately cease all human made CO2 emissions. Right now. No emissions. Forevermore.
Great! Problem solved! Right? Well, not quite.
Climate change is a long, heavy, slow moving train crawling across decades. Even if we pull the emergency brake right now, we’re not stopping for a while yet.
I mean, in terms of warming trajectories, ceasing all emissions immediately would be a very good thing to do. The best science currently estimates that under this super extreme best case scenario we could probably keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
But, even so — and especially if we shoot past 1.5 degrees and then 2 degrees, which is where the current trajectory takes us — the train has a hell of a distance to travel before it grinds to a halt.
Whatever we do from here, we’ve locked in at least some amount of warming — and the climate impacts that come with it.
We’re already seeing these impacts. The devastating fire season we’re currently choking our way through has played out against a background of just 1 degree of warming.
Things are getting worse before they get better, and we need to be prepared. This is why adaptation is an essential component of any effective climate change strategy.
Adaptation shouldn’t be reduced to a talking point
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Government is using adaptation to deflect from the conversation we absolutely need to have around reducing this country’s emissions.
And there’s a history of adaptation/resilience being hijacked by climate deniers — a trojan horse to undermine climate mitigation, and distract from the urgent need to reduce emissions.
But climate adaptation shouldn’t be reduced to a political talking point.
At its most effective, it’s conducted in consultation with communities affected by climate change at the local level. And it’s essential.
Inaction doesn’t come cheap
Adaptation prepares us for the worst impacts. Following Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, 19 architectural firms offered their services for free to bushfire victims.
The architects designed “bushfire proof” houses for those wanting to rebuild with some aesthetically stunning results. However, only a few of these homes were built.
This type of adaptation relies on individual or small group action, and can be hugely expensive, raising questions of equity.
Sydney’s Kurnell desalination plant — which is set to double in size as dams across the Greater Sydney region dry up — is an example of government-driven climate adaptation.
The dams are drying up for a number of reasons; changing rainfall, rising temperatures (both of which are driven by climate change), but also the city’s population boom, which is not driven by climate change (well, yet).
These things are usually complex and never clear cut.
Again, desalination is a climate adaptation that comes with a cost to the individual — households have been warned to expect higher water bills — and the process itself is a far from energy efficient.
But it’s what’s needed as the security of our water supplies become less certain.
These solutions are expensive. Inaction doesn’t come cheap.
We need to think ahead to survive the climate crisis
All this aside, adaptation in isolation is installing airbags and seatbelts to save the passengers from the impacts of an increasingly out of control train — it doesn’t slow down the train.
Unless you pull the emergency brake, it’s near futile. There’s an old adage in climate circles: “We must adapt to what we can’t avoid, and avoid what we can’t adapt to.”
Both adaptation and mitigation are essential if we’re going to survive the climate crisis.
Rapid, large scale emissions reduction is necessary for our survival. It has been for 30 years. We’re not getting out of this unless we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
Returning to my already groaning train metaphor, we have to pull that brake, not just chuck suitcases out of the luggage car in a theatrical but ineffective attempt to slow down the train.
No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Emissions reduction is non-negotiable. It’s the most effective climate action we can take.
Government shifts gears
This week the Government’s had something of a mea culpa when it comes to talking action on climate change. From the Prime Minister’s heady days bringing a lump of coal into Parliament, the shift in focus to adaptation/resilience has been viewed cynically by many.
And indeed, it can be hard to take the Government completely seriously here — especially when, as recently as Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s unqualified support of coal was again on display.
We should be suspicious of political spin, always. But we shouldn’t ignore an important aspect of an effective climate strategy because we’re so woke to the tricks of The Man.
Don’t buy the Government’s line out right, sure. But also don’t let the spin push you so far in the opposite direction that you move past evidence based decision making and into your own case of denial.