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For Some, the Climate Crisis Means Change or Perish

Holding back the melting glaciers in Peru requires a combination of approaches: mitigation and adaptation, not one or the other.
In the shadow of Peru’s melting glaciers, adapting to climate change has become as urgent as preventing it

When you write about climate change for a living, you have to accept that it comes with a serious occupational hazard. The facts you bring back tend to be depressing, and people don’t like to be depressed. They want uplifting news. A trip I took to Peru last summer for OnEarth was a classic example of the dilemma: grinding poverty, crippling water shortages, life-giving glaciers disappearing before your eyes… Where was the good news?

I brooded about this for months, to the point where I found a pretext to go back to Peru for a few days, mainly so I could spend a bit more time with a glaciologist I’d met there named César Portocarrero. What had really been nagging at me, to be honest, was the suspicion that the good news had been there all the time, hidden in plain sight. In Peru, as in many countries around the world, I’d seen people adapting creatively to climate change, because the daily evidence of their senses tells them that it is an inescapable reality. For many environmentalists, however, this has meant facing up to a deeply inconvenient truth, a threat to the mantra that nothing but the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions will do, and that adaptation is an admission of defeat.

Climate deniers and skeptics have always been quite happy to sneer at the idea that we should invest in adapting to global warming; after all, if it isn’t real, why bother adapting to its effects? Others, like the idiosyncratic Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, say that adaptation should be taken out of the climate debate; it’s just another word for responding to poverty. What bothers me more is the hostility toward climate adaptation from some of the smartest environmental commentators around, such as Joe Romm, who calls it a "cruel euphemism" for suffering. People can only "adapt" to global warming, Romm says, in the sense that people in Darfur have "adapted" to war and genocide, or the victim of an avoidable heart attack "adapts" by having heart surgery that might kill him.

The antipathy of people like Romm was fueled by a string of economic analyses published in 2008, all of which showed that the cost of curbing greenhouse gas emissions was much lower than we had imagined. First came the British government’s Stern Review, which concluded that stabilizing CO2 emissions by 2050 would cost only about 1 percent of global GDP -- a "significant but manageable" amount (the world currently spends three times as much on risk insurance). The International Energy Agency produced similar numbers, and the McKinsey Global Institute went further: stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at 450 parts per million by 2030 would have a "net cost near zero."

I have no quarrel with those studies; they make a persuasive case, and I wouldn’t deny for a second that unless we radically curb emissions the game will ultimately be lost. The problem is not the "invest in mitigation" part; it’s the corollary: "…and therefore don’t invest in adaptation."

To someone whose daily life is defined by ice, water, soil, and weather -- for example, a peasant in Peru or Bangladesh -- this zero-sum argument about how governments should spend trillions of dollars feels like a remote and abstract parlor game. And the implied message that said peasant should continue to grind along in the same old way for another 20 or 40 years while we get emissions under control is where abstract starts looking a lot like callous.

On my return to Peru, I met up with César Portocarrero in Caraz, a small town high in the Andes. It’s a sleepy place with a lost-in-time quality, yet climate change is a palpable presence in everyday life. Thanks to the mayor -- an old friend and tennis buddy of César’s -- there are several large murals in the streets lamenting the disappearance of the glaciers of the surrounding Cordillera Blanca and urging everyone to play their part in protecting the environment.

We drove up into the mountains from Caraz to a place called Huauya, where villagers treated us to a lunch of roast guinea pig and vividly colored native potatoes (which, incidentally, are seriously at risk because of climate change). Leaders of several of the surrounding hamlets had assembled to meet us. After opening prayers in a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, César was invited to address the gathering. He remarked to the villagers that they knew better than any scientist how the climate was changing: the cold was colder, the heat was hotter, the rains were unpredictable, new pests were eating the crops, you could look up at the mountain and see rock where once there had been snow.

When the conversation was over, we went out into the fields and talked with the community leaders about how they might address the problem. By choosing which crops to plant and when to plant them, the villagers would build resilience. By eradicating harmful bugs (without the use of pesticides), they would reduce their vulnerability to changing temperatures. And by learning how to manage their diminishing water supply, they would increase their capacity to adapt.

Yes, I know, Huauya is just one small, remote village in the high Andes. But here were all the core elements of climate adaptation -- building resilience, reducing vulnerability, and increasing technical capacity. Adaptation is going on all around us; it will go on happening without us, but much better that it should happen with our support.

Scientists like César are a big part of the solution. He doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty; indeed he sees it as a moral obligation. Scientific research counts for very little unless it had a practical application.

A long chain of logic had led him to the village of Huauya. He is a glacial engineer by training, which brought him to the Cordillera Blanca, a region that has suffered from a biblical plague of natural disasters -- earthquakes, avalanches, mudslides, and floods. Climate change has greatly aggravated many of those risks as the glaciers melt. César’s particular skill is the building of retention dams and drainage tunnels to avert the threat of catastrophic outburst floods from glacial lakes. The village of Huauya lies right below the Laguna Parón, the largest such lake in the region, and the dam that holds back its waters is the crowning accomplishment of César’s career. Building it took him deep into the daily lives of the communities that were threatened; climate change stressed them further; learning to use the water and plant their crops more wisely became the stuff of survival.

All sorts of threads were woven together, in other words, in this visit to one small village in the Andes, with a scientist who came down from the ivory tower and the disciplines of climate science, engineering, risk management, and agronomy blending seamlessly together. You could not find anyone who cared more about mitigating carbon emissions than César Portocarrero, but neither could you find anyone more richly immersed in the daily realities of adapting to climate change.

Perhaps this false and energy-sapping debate over adaptation has finally run its course. I’ve been as sobered as anyone by the slow and stumbling progress toward a binding global climate treaty, but here too there is some good news. Last December, in the most recent round of UN climate talks, delegates from 193 countries adopted the Cancún Adaptation Framework, which confronts our inconvenient truth head-on: climate change is real, it is unavoidable, and we have to support those who are trying to confront it, marrying the adaptive skills that indigenous communities have honed over centuries with the best available science and technology. Ask anyone in Huauya to choose between mitigation and adaptation, and they’ll tell you quite clearly: it’s not either/or, stupid -- it’s both/and.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >