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Sat Jul 31, 2021, 09:11 AM

Humans are adaptable. But can we handle the climate crisis? [View all]

(Grist) With all the extreme weather events that are happening in the world today, it can feel like the environmental changes that climate scientists have long warned us about are suddenly happening so fast. As such, I am sympathetic to a panicked reaction along the lines of: It’s all over, and we need to get in gear for our new Mad Max reality. But before you start recruiting a band of gauzy-gowned, machine gun-toting waifs, I think it’s worth revisiting the difference between climate mitigation and adaptation.

Climate mitigation includes everything we do to try to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that get into the atmosphere, in an attempt to avoid truly catastrophic levels of global warming: replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, constructing better-insulated buildings to conserve resources, reimagining our entire transportation system, and all that.

These are major changes, of course, and it’s proven deeply difficult so far to get humans to make them. In the stark words of a Brookings Institute analysis of the politics of climate change, “the dire warnings, the scientific consensus, and the death toll from unprecedented climate events have failed to move the public very much.” We have seen carbon taxes die on the ballot, politicians allowing oil and gas drilling to proceed on public lands, and — in quite recent memory — elected a president who openly denies climate change. Even the act of eating a hamburger has been framed as a sacred political right to protect.


As far as a human’s biological capacity to adapt to a warmer world, it is possible that we could evolve to be more heat-tolerant. We might, for example, develop denser sweat glands and longer limbs to better dissipate heat. But those changes would take far longer than 50 years to manifest; as we know, evolution happens over generations through the process of natural selection.

Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist and director of the Smithsonian Institute’s Human Origins Program, emphasizes that climate adaptation is about a lot more than biology, and evolution is not synonymous with progress. “The long course of human evolution shows that climate disruption, which is what we’re going through right now and in the foreseeable future, is associated with the demise of ways of life,” he said. When we see “the extinction of species, of certain kinds of technologies, out of the ashes of those ways of life can come new behaviors and ways of appearing.” ...........(more)


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