We Adapt, Therefore We Are
Dear Adaptation Mavens,
I’m pretty sure I believe climate change is happening and that I should be doing something about it. I manage a boreal forest reserve and things sure seem different. But then I read the polls that say that some people aren’t sure it’s real and maybe it’s all the talk of dishonest scientists. Am I a dupe to believe its real? Should I actually do anything or wait to see how it pans out?
There are so many uncertainties in life. It starts at conception—will you be a boy or a girl? Your chromosomes know but your parents don’t. Then it plagues you through grade school (Will you get picked for the kick-ball team?) and high school (Will you get a prom date?). Every day decisions are rife with uncertainty (Should you bring a raincoat? Will the neighbor’s dog attack you as you begin biking to work?), as are bigger life decisions (Should you marry that person? Buy a house?). Rene Descartes famously struggled with his uncertainty about so grand an issue as the existence of God. He built a logic diagram that went roughly like this:
His take away message: If there is no God and you live your life as though there were a god you haven’t really lost anything. If there is a God and you live as if there were not, you lose. So the safest strategy is to live your life as though there God exists.
Now for some people there is no doubt in their mind about the existence of God. However for others faith is harder to come by. You seem to be indicating that your faith in whether or not the climate is changing is shaky. You seem to want to believe but you are worried about leaping on a trend or bandwagon before everyone joins you. So let’s apply Descartes’ approach first to the question of whether to act to reduce climate change itself:
But your question was more about whether you should take action in your management activities or just wait and see. Now the table looks like this:
So if climate change does not exist, it really doesn’t matter whether you adapt or not, however if it does exist your decision likely makes the difference between success and failure. The question is, would you rather take no action and risk failure, or try adaptation and risk at worst ending up with your current level of success? Not taking action often seems less risky, but this isn’t always the case—not acting can be risky indeed.
But is all this philosophical stuff appropriate for the question of whether climate change exists? Is climate change really a question of faith? No (although many fundamentalist Christians argue that their response to climate change is indeed a matter of faith, namely following the Biblical mandate to care for Creation1). Regardless of what’s causing the climate to change, it’s pretty clear that it is changing—ask anyone living on low-lying coastal plains, or near glaciers. Heck, ask yourself! You seem to have noticed changes in your forest.
You don’t get to make effective management decision in hindsight. If this were the case perhaps the United States would’ve followed Canada’s lead on same-season relief well drilling and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be contained already. Cane Toads might not have been used for pest eradication, Dodo birds would still be walking around, we wouldn’t have licensed DDT, and Love Canal would still be home to happy (albeit unhealthy) families.
Just as clear-cutting an area now means you can’t have old growth forest there again for a very long time, the decisions we make now affect what management and conservation options we have in the future. Waiting for certainty (particularly if it comes in the form of a disaster) may limit our options and, given the scope and nature of climate change, you may never get the certainty you crave.
Incorporating climate change into your management plan now could very well be the stitch in time that saves nine.
Additional note to readers: With this advice column the CAKE website is becoming fully functional! Yippie! We invite you to visit often, take advantage of the many fine resources and if the spirit moves you, please donate to the cause. If CAKE is your online adaptation destination, consider making a donation of a case study or funds to keep it running.
1 See Hayhoe and Farely’s 2010 book “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions”