Book Review: "Finding Higher Ground: Adaption in the Age of Warming" by Amy Seidl

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Review by John Atkeison

“Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming”
Author: Amy Seidl
Publisher: Beacon Press

Does ‘Finding Higher Ground’ Offer A Way Home?

“Finding Higher Ground” is a book that is full of positive ideas, lovely language and words that flag important concepts that illuminate our way forward toward “Adaptation In the Age of Warming.” I agree with a basic premise of the book, that we can survive and thrive through coping with global warming. So why does this small book make me so uneasy?

None of the book will make sense to people who still cling to the idea that the world’s physical scientists and their professional organizations are wrong about global warming. While it is an important part of scientists’ job to keep prodding and poking and demanding more evidence, the science is settled to a remarkable degree: humanity has changed just enough of just the right part of the atmosphere to increase the amount of solar energy retained in our air, seas and land. This greenhouse effect is already measurably altering the climate and so continues to change our future. The more qualified a scientist is to judge the technical merits of the arguments and evidence, the more strongly she is likely to agree with this consensus. For those wishing to engage more on the basics of this topic, I send you with Godspeed to http://bit.ly/SKSArguments.

For most people, ones who recognize that there are large changes afoot in our world, there is a practical question that is central to Dr. Seidl’s book: do we treat the root of the problem or adjust to our new world? Or both?

Amy Seidl focuses on the need and techniques for adaptation for humans and the living beings we live among. She describes all sorts of methods of change embedded in the biological world. Evolution, plasticity and other forms of nimbleness can be seen in plants and animals, and sometimes they offer us models for our own survival. “Fitting In,” “Migration,” “Localization,” “Pragmatism” and “Self-Reliance” are among chapters that lead to the ultimate, “Persistence.”

An essential adaptation is the topic in a chapter titled “Feast or Famine” about our ability to produce food in the new climates of the new world.

“The new world”—is that putting it too strongly? Preeminent climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen warns of this consequence of ineffectiveness in reducing pollution of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2): “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced ... If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”

And here is the catch that is caught by that practical question of treating the root versus adapting. If we spend our energy adapting to the changes that are here and that we see coming, are we also able to be doing enough to avoid the consequences described by Dr. Hansen? There is a profoundly important issue here: how can we choose to take a path that leads to a disastrous future for our children and grandchildren? Surely we must eliminate such a threat, despite the fact that collectively we have done little thus far. So how can we also take on adapting to the (relatively) mild changes that we are seeing and the vociferous ones on the way? Is it all too much?

I think the answer is that since it is clear now that the climates are changing and changing more rapidly than was thought possible, we must offer ways to survive. We who are organizing to find ways to cope with this existential challenge now have to offer practical advice on how to cope with the reality that is threatening to dry us out, blow us away or wash us downstream. It is quite possible that engaging in this way is essential for more people to engage on the underlying issues. Many people strongly resist engaging on an issue for which they think there is no solution, or a cause for which they are not able to make a difference. Probably if the people who speak out and organize to cut greenhouse gas pollution can offer a fuller solution, more ordinary people will engage. After all, few things are less attractive in a movement than not recognizing reality. This is really a very practical issue: “If things are getting as bad as you say, tell me how will we survive?!”

Where does that leave us with the fixing-the-problem issue—what climate wonks call mitigation as contrasted to the adaptation of surviving?

And this may be the source of my uneasiness. I have a problem with the position that Seidl states in the preface: “While mitigating climate change is essential, adapting to and through centuries of warming is paramount.”

Unless we mitigate to a sufficient degree, civilization and perhaps humanity may be unable to survive, according to the most credible experts. In the words of Dr. Lonnie Thompson, “global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” (http://bit.ly/ThompsonSpeaks2010)

That’s kind of a problem.

How did we get to this dire point? Humans are actually pretty smart, even acknowledging all our faults. Not one of our previous human civilizations could see the changes of climate coming at them and might not have been able to adapt if they had. But, in fact, we can. Our understanding of the heat-trapping properties of CO2 goes back to the mid-19th century, and the greenhouse effect has not been new news since the beginning of the 20th century. The previously mentioned Dr. Hansen and others published work in the 1970s that Hansen brought to congressional hearings on a hot summer day in 1988. He warned that global warming was here and posed a grave danger. Since that time, there has been no good excuse for inaction. Yet there have been 35 years more of inaction than an appropriate response.

How can that be? There is a simple answer: like the tobacco industry before them, the people who profit from the production of greenhouse gases like CO2 have successfully deflected, delayed or deferred every meaningful attempt to stop this crisis from developing. (http://bit.ly/MerchantsOfDoubt) They continue to succeed, and it is probably long past time that suicidal sandbagging became an issue for anyone wanting to be taken seriously on matters of significance.

The time has come where we must act or face the fact that we may be too late. Dr. Hansen is an optimist. He has prescribed a solution that he says will probably allow us to avoid the worst consequences of climate-twisting global warming. He says simply stop removing the world’s forests and regrow them, and simultaneously reduce greenhouse pollution by 3 percent per year. Starting in 2013. He advised that several years ago, to little avail.

Which brings us to the other reason this fine little book makes me uneasy. The first glimmer of this particular unease came with the ease with which Dr. Seidl listed big ways that we must adapt. For example, the suggestion that France and south Louisiana will survive by erecting sea walls to fend off rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storm surges. I spent a few years in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina among people who have an intense interest in the subject, and it seems extremely doubtful that such projects are possible, much less practical. Seidl is much stronger when describing very local or individual adaptation.

Ultimately we can cap the damage threatened by rampant global warming and cope as the climates lurch their way to new stable points. We need to find our way to live in our new world, our new home, and in “Finding Higher Ground” Amy Seidl offers us a well-crafted opportunity to take on some of these issues. When she appears as the 2013 Sorensen Lecturer in Lincoln, Neb., this Oct. 13, we will have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her.

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