life after warming

What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change

Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the temperature on Antarctica’s Esperanza Peninsula reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit — the warmest ever, and hotter than it was, at the time, not just in New York but in San Diego. A few days later, the temperature on the continent’s Seymour Island hit 69 — hotter than it was in Delhi. The next day, Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier lost a chunk of ice 130 square miles in surface area. A few days after that, scientists working at Australia’s University of New South Wales published research showing that, about a hundred thousand years ago, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet produced, all by itself, six feet of sea-level rise — and that it took less than two degrees Celsius of warming to melt it. We are currently at about 1.1 degrees of warming, but are heading almost inevitably for 2. And New South Wales, where those scientists were peering deep into the past to get some kind of Dark Mirror handle on the future world coming now terrifyingly into view, is still on fire — more than four months since the catastrophic Australian bushfires began. A quarter of the country’s forests have been incinerated in a single bushfire season, as have more than a billion of Australia’s animals.

Not all that long ago, climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense. Now that it has begun roaring into the present with a terrifying fury, the matter of reducing warming through decarbonization (often called “mitigation”) has been displaced, to a degree, in the public conversation among policymakers, advocates, investors, and futurists. There is more and more talk now, instead, about what’s called “adaptation” — not how to reduce carbon emissions to limit warming, but how to adapt to a world defined by climate pummeling in ways that would allow us to endure those blows. This shift has been most pronounced among the world’s conservatives — it has been the basic response of Australian prime minister to his country’s devastating fires, for instance — but it is not a perspective confined to the right. Recently, the New York Times considered the plan, advanced by the Army Corps of Engineers, to construct a sea wall, enclosing all of New York harbor, that would stretch for 6 miles and cost at least $100 billion. In South Florida, they are also talking about flood walls, but there the Army Corps is proposing building them not off the coast but on the mainland, leaving all of Miami Beach — and the states’ other barrier islands — exposed. In Europe, they’re talking about damming up the entire North Sea — a 400-mile barrier in two parts, to be built at a cost in the hundreds of billions.

At first blush, these proposals can look like good ideas — using technological know-how and capital resources we have today to forestall and protect against the impacts we know to expect in the medium-term future. Some of them may even prove unavoidable, as climate change impacts accumulate (I have a hard time imagining New York City not building some kind of sea wall over the next few decades, for instance). But that doesn’t mean they are a substitute for decarbonization or mitigation, for two main reasons. First, adaptation projects are already astronomically expensive, and delaying decarbonization will only make them more so (and make many more of them necessary). Second, they are all inevitably limited to some degree in scope, which means they represent a choice about who to protect and who to expose. Adaptation may sound like a solution to climate change, or at least a way to avoid the need for rapid decarbonization. It isn’t. When it comes to adaptation, there are no good options, only ways of prioritizing particular catastrophes, and communities, over others.

Waves crash against the harbor wall this month in Porthcawl, Wales. Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Take the New York City sea wall. It would take 25 years to build, at least, which would certainly mean that vulnerable communities in South Brooklyn and Queens could be regularly underwater, already, by the time it was finished. Those living just outside the barrier would not just be unprotected, they would be additionally inundated by water from whatever storm surges the barriers blocked from the city.

Close and careful readers about climate change have probably grown more and more aware, over the last several years, of the the climate justice aspects of global warming — the world’s poorest countries hit hardest, despite having done the least to bring us this close to catastrophe, and without the nearly the resources the wealthy nations of the world can marshal to protect themselves. But these issues are also salient within individual nations, where the poorer communities are typically those hit hardest. The borders that define the shape of what is sometimes called “eco-fascism” or “climate brutality” — a politics of power and exclusion layered over natural disasters and environmental degradation — are not just those between nations, but the boundaries within nations that divide communities from one another. Adaptation projects, for the most part, don’t address these inequities; they exacerbate them. Of course, it’s not necessarily pretty within the walls of the fortress, either. Because of engineering limitations, the New York sea wall “could trap sewage and toxins,” the Times reports. As a lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council, and opponent of the project, put it, “we’d essentially be sitting in a bathtub of our own excrement.” Local opposition has grown so significant the Army Corps just announced it is suspending its work on the project and four other possible approaches to New York harbor. But absent significant mitigation measures, undertaken globally, probably, at some point soon, some kind of flood barrier or sea wall will start to seem necessary.

The North Sea dam is perhaps even more problematic a proposal. Indeed, so problematic that even the authors of the paper proposing it say they hope things wouldn’t come to that — in fact, they say, the main purpose of their paper is not to advocate for such a project but simply to use it to showcase the scale of the threat from warming. “It might be impossible to truly fathom the magnitude of the threat” they write in the paper. “However, conceptualizing the scale of the solutions required to protect ourselves against global-mean sea-level rise aids in our ability to acknowledge and understand the threat that sea level rise poses.”

Unfortunately I wouldn’t be too confident that far-out proposals would serve this purpose, rather than its opposite. Desperate, last-gasp stop-gap adaptation proposals often grow mainstream rapidly when it comes to climate change. Take negative emissions technology, which would allow us to take carbon out of the atmosphere — as recently as a decade or so ago, it was considered irresponsible to even consider, and now it forms the basis of any warming trajectory with a hope of delivering a relatively livable future. Almost certainly, we will have to deploy negative emissions, probably at great scale, but only because of global collective inaction in the past. If we continue to produce carbon as recklessly as we have over the last few decades, almost certainly we’re going to be building a lot of dams and sea-walls, as well, many of them inadequate given projections for sea-level rise from the total loss of all the planets ice: 250 feet or so, arriving over centuries. Wouldn’t it be better not have to build sea walls of that size?

An even better contemporary illustration about the dilemma of adaptation — or, really, the false choice between adaptation and mitigation — may come not from the challenges of climate change but the coronavirus. In the scariest projections, 70 percent of the world could be infected by COVID-19, with probably 2 percent of those numbers dying from the disease — a worst-case scenario of 100 million or so deaths. But while even these scenarios spare the overwhelming majority of the species, of course they are also horrifyingly large death tolls, and therefore not an argument for complacency but for vigilance — from both public-health officials and workaday citizens. Quarantines are imperfect tools in the fight against diseases like this, and yet of course we would prefer to see the problem contained, to the extent it can be, rather than watch it grow as quickly and expansively as possible, trusting we could clean up the mess on the other side. The health infrastructure we have today (in certain parts of the world at least) is one reason that the death rate is as low as 2 percent; the health infrastructure we are building today (construction of new hospitals, the deployment of military resources, research in pursuit of a vaccine) may drive that figure lower, perhaps even to zero, over the course of the next year or so. But those facts alone — or, rather, the partial hope that they represent — is not a reason to forego action today. Best of all, of course, would have been if we could have avoided the virus in the first place.

What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change