It hasn’t been a good summer.?It was the hottest June ever recorded, and then the hottest July.?In the U.S., smoke from Canadian wildfires poisoned the air on the East Coast and in the Midwest.?Towns in Vermont flooded.?Phoenix endured 31 consecutive days when the temperature exceeded 110 degrees.?In Florida, the ocean is as hot as bathwater.?More than 100 lives were lost in the Maui wildfires, and as of Monday morning, more than 800 people were unaccounted for.?And on Sunday, Tropical Storm Hillary made landfall on the Baja California peninsula of Mexico and broke rainfall records in Los Angeles. It was the first tropical storm to hit Southern California in 84 years.
Almost no one asks me anymore whether climate change is real.?I’d like to think that’s because we climate scientists have finally mastered the art of persuasion.?But it’s clear that the Earth is changing minds more effectively than we or any scientific report ever could.
It’s hard to deny what’s going on, but there’s still money to be made in delaying climate action.?Thus, the denier narrative has shifted from saying climate change isn’t real to saying climate change is real, but we’ll just adapt to it. The “just” is the part that worries me.?Clearly, we need to adapt.?Our society was built for a climate that no longer exists, and we have no choice but to change.?But we should never pretend adaptation is the easy way out.
Climate change is complicated.?As my colleague Katharine Hayhoe often points out, it’s not so much global “warming” as it is global weirding.?Climate change is making heat waves longer, hotter and likelier.?Warm air is thirstier air, driving more evaporation and increasing the risk of drought.?But all that water sucked up from the Earth’s surface has to go somewhere.?As air gets warmer, it holds more water vapor, making extreme rainfall events even wetter.?Warm water is hurricane food, and storms are getting stronger, dumping more rain and, aided by rising seas, surging farther inland.
Worse still, climate change increases the risk of compound extremes — that’s science for “double whammy” — multiple events that occur simultaneously or in quick succession.?Think landslides caused by heavy rain after a wildfire or a heat wave that hampers rescue efforts after a hurricane.
Adaptation is harder than the “we’ll just adapt” crowd suggests, because the climate keeps changing.?When people say “adapt,” I always wonder: Adapt to what??Suppose we manage to “adapt” to the current game of whatever hellscape roulette we’re experiencing.?What will we do when the world changes again??If we do nothing to stop climate change, then more and more places will become uninhabitable — and how can we adapt to that??The simple truth is this: Until humans stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the planet will keep warming.?Adaptation is a moving target until the climate stabilizes.?That won’t happen until global greenhouse gas emissions reach net zero.?
The science, while complex, is the easy part.?In a climate model, we can quantify the contribution of climate change to any given extreme event by running thousands of simulations, some with elevated greenhouse gas concentrations, some without. ?
But climate change doesn’t happen in a model.?It happens in the real world.?Weird weather intersects with the society we’ve built.?Heat waves are hotter in historically redlined neighborhoods, Hurricane Harvey disproportionately flooded Spanish-speaking households, and air pollution is worse in predominantly Black neighborhoods than mostly white ones.?There are reasons for this, and they have nothing to do with the physics of a warming atmosphere. They have to do with our past choices, our governments and lingering inequality.
Adaptation will be messy and imperfect because the world is messy and imperfect and generally hard to change. John Holdren, a science adviser to former President Barack Obama, once said climate change presents us with three choices: “adaptation, mitigation and suffering.” We’re in the midst of all three right now, but not together.?And not equally.
If we don’t stop the rise in global temperatures, adaptation will always be a game of catch-up, one we’ll always lose.?The good news??We can stop warming.?We already have the tools we need to make the necessary cuts in emissions.?The bad news??Well, we see it on our screens every day.?It’s been a terrible summer, and it will only get worse from here.?But there is still so much we can do.?“We can just adapt” is a lie designed to distract us from the actions we must take today to limit warming. Yes, we need to adapt to climate change.?But we can’t allow adaptation to become an argument for acceptance.