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Climate resilience will come from prioritizing humans—not what we’ve built

Hokyoung Kim for Quartz
  • Akshat Rathi
By Akshat Rathi

Senior reporter

Among the millions of species that inhabit our planet, Homo sapiens is one of the most resilient. Since we first evolved some 200,000 years ago in Africa, we’ve created habitats for ourselves in every corner of the world: from the frozen depths of the Canadian Arctic to the scorching heat of the Australian desert.

We’ve survived all those wild variations in the Earth’s climate because we are exceptionally good at changing our surroundings to fit our needs. To do that, humanity has looted the natural world. Over the past 250 years in particular, that pace has hastened as we have extracted more and more of the planet’s fuel stores and burned them to support our increasingly comfortable lifestyles.

In doing so, we have altered the planet far more than our ancestors might have imagined. Climate change caused by the use of fossil fuels, if left unaddressed, will make places that millions of people call home uninhabitable. Humans are finally discovering the limits of our own resilience. And to find a way out of this climate crisis, we’ll need to redefine how we go about addressing large-scale threats to our species’ survival.

Adapting isn’t enough

Faced with an immediate threat, our reflex is often to protect what we already have. When a family home catches on fire, its owners have to fight the urge to run back inside and save their most valuable belongings. So it goes with the cities and societies humans have built that are now vulnerable to flooding, drought, or destructive storms as a result of climate change.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which, in 2012, left parts of New York City’s subway system paralyzed, the city’s leaders proposed a $20 billion investment to build a sea wall around the tip of the island. In the middle of worsening wildfires, California’s bankrupt energy utility, PG&E, is planning to bury (instead of elevate) 200 miles of electrical wires—in neighborhoods rebuilt on the ashes of the deadly Paradise fire.

In the field of climate change preparedness, these actions are referred to as adaptation: attempts to save existing communities and infrastructure from the effects of climate change.

But while these adaptation projects might allay fears for now, they do not address the root cause of the problem. A seawall may defend a small region against sea level rise—but it doesn’t change the increased likelihood of severe coastal flooding around the world. Buried electrical wires decrease the chance that power lines will spark a wildfire, but the surrounding landscape remains a tinderbox created by ongoing drought.

Unless, that is, we commit collectively to also reducing emissions—what those in the field call mitigation—to avoid the worst effects of climate change. “It’s very clear that adaptation without mitigation is futile,” says John Sterman, an MIT professor who studies system dynamics.

Instead of molding our surroundings to our needs, now it’s time to turn the tables: We must use the human ingenuity that created climate change to match our consumption to what our surroundings can sustainably provide.

Sterman uses the example of a burning house. You’re likely to see the image of a firefighter rescuing a little boy from a burning building on the front page of a newspaper, but you’re unlikely to see the photo of the engineer who designed building codes to prevent hundreds of other buildings from catching fire in the first place. “The firefighter’s courage is worth celebrating,” says Sterman. “But let’s be clear that the engineer has saved many more lives.”

Engineering our survival

In the face of climate change, the metaphorical engineers’ efforts must remain a priority: We’ll save far more lives by implementing energy systems that limit our global consumption of fossil fuels and reduce (and even reverse) carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Take, for example, the island of Puerto Rico, which was left in tatters after the onslaught of Hurricane Maria in 2017. The island was plunged into darkness—a blackout that would go on to become the world’s second-worst ever. When rebuilding its electricity infrastructure, many on the island preferred to choose cleaner and more resilient options: solar power and batteries.

The current state of climate change makes it all but certain that Puerto Rico will continue to be hit by hurricanes just as severe as Maria. So the new microgrids not only reduce long-term emissions: They ensure that essential health and food systems will remain running in the face of natural disasters.

Puerto Rico’s change is emblematic of what Sterman calls “multisolving.” While its updated energy systems address the primary goal of mitigating carbon emissions, they also adapt to the ongoing threat of climate change.

“One way to reimagine how to tackle climate change is to put people at the heart,” says Friederike Otto, director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, not possessions or infrastructure or capital. If the measure of success is human safety and survival, “it’s then easier to come up with win-win solutions”—those that marry mitigation and adaptation. 

Like cutting air pollution in cities. Outdoor air pollution kills millions of people each year, according to the World Health Organization, so reducing it improves the health of the residents and lowers public health costs. But cutting air pollution also requires lowering the consumption of fossil fuels—which leads to a cut in greenhouse gas emissions.

Another example can be found in initiatives organized by governments and philanthropies in the UK, the US, and New Zealand. People in these countries can’t always afford the heating needed to survive cold winters. These initiatives retrofit homes with energy-efficiency measures such as roof insulation and double-glazed windows. The upshot: The cost of the upgrades was much lower than the money residents would have otherwise spent on heating bills.

These adaptive measures feel different from infrastructure changes like seawalls and buried power lines. They address multiple needs simultaneously. “We cannot solve real-world problems like climate change by solving bits and pieces of the problem,” says Otto. In the face of a growing climate emergency, true resilience—in effect, the survival of the species—will require either difficult choices between short-term adaptation and long-term mitigation, or human ingenuity to marry them together. 

And in the event that our efforts fail, humanity can still resort to the most extreme form of adaptation: managed retreat.

For now, Puerto Rico will rebuild, knowing that hurricanes will continue to pummel its shores. But in face of some climate disasters, we may have to suppress our reflexes to protect the buildings we’ve constructed and the towns we’ve lived in. It could mean not rebuilding a town after a wildfire because the area is highly vulnerable to future wildfires. It might mean abandoning the plans to build a seawall, leaving some of our hard-won cities to lie fallow in favor of building sustainable communities further inland.

In the long run, resilience against climate change is not primarily about the ability of our homes and cities to outlast the shifts in our atmosphere. It’s about us: Humanity’s flexibility in the face of change. Just like our ancestors, we can relearn how to match our needs to our surroundings—and if necessary, to simply move on.

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