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High School Students Debate Climate Change: Adapt or Geoengineer?

As part of a national contest, teams of high school students argue adaptation is the only viable response to global warming whereas another team calls for geoengineering
geoengineer or adapt



NASA

Editor's Note: Each year, the Bickel & Brewer/NYU International Public Policy Forum directs a policy position at high schools worldwide for debate, pro or con. This year, organizers issued a climate-related challenge: "Resolved: Adaptation should be the most urgent response to climate change." 213 teams from 34 states and 29 countries responded, each writing 2,800-word essays making the case for their position. The following are two essays that survived the first round—one from Bozeman, Mont., making the case that adaptation is the only viable response and the other from high schoolers in Sherman Oaks, Calif., arguing that geoengineering is the best choice. The IPPF World Champion will be named on April 13, following oral debates in New York City.

BOZEMAN, Mont. – We live in a world that is never far from the brink, a world where, unfortunately, constant action is the only thing keeping many potential cataclysms at bay. Such tireless efforts are not always enough, and many challenges require even greater attention. Such is the case with climate change. 

The increasingly dire situation, one that humanity is only now just learning to cope with, has made one thing clear: we must value adaptation as our first and foremost response to climate change. The other option, mitigation, is simply too grand in scope and too constrained by time. Successful adaptation efforts, which are currently being widely practiced, should be our highest priority.

When discussing climate change, the first thing that should be clear is the impractical nature of pure mitigation; it is an unfeasible undertaking for an apathetic species, and the deadline is too imminent. We can’t afford to stumble in our efforts, but the sad truth is that we already have. Political dissension hinders efforts greatly, and the leviathan of world government is slow to move. This has created a growing pessimism within the scientific community, with the Guardian reporting that almost nine out of 10 climate scientists don’t believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2º Celsius will succeed. 

Stuck with the effects
This statistic makes the point utterly clear: It’s already too late to prioritize mitigation; we’ve failed to seize the opportunity. We are stuck with the effects we’ve made for ourselves, and we’re going to have to bear them out. Period.

It is important to understand what exactly we will soon be forced to adapt to. One significant example is an increase in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. Another quite obvious effect of global warming is wildfires. And yet another participator in the parade of disasters is a new generation of stronger, more dangerous hurricanes. Combined with other calamities, we find ourselves in a two-front war: Fire and heat that ravage inland communities, and massively destructive storms that damage coastal zones.

In spite of such a muddle, there is hope. Since it has been established that we can neither stop nor avoid the effects of climate change, the clear strategic decision is to adapt and potentially use climate change to our advantage. If we can alter and adapt our civilization to be compatible with a changing world we will then have an opportunity to begin the long process of mitigation in safety.

Governments adapting
Many national governments are adapting to climate change. 

Australia has created an adaptation program to “help Australians better understand climate change, manage risks, and take advantage of potential opportunities;” In Nigeria, state and local governments are developing action plans for high-risk urban areas, while the federal government is seeking to expand forests by reducing deforestation and wood fuel demand; in Mali, significant efforts are being made to conserve water resources, as well as create usable mechanisms to track the development of climate change.

On the community level, many towns and cities have autonomously created action plans to prepare for the adverse effects of climate change. The city of Portland has created perhaps the most comprehensive plans to date. In South Africa, the city of Cape Town has created a similar citywide strategy. They divide their community into eight sectors then highlight four to six different methods for adapting that sector. Globally, the number of cities which have undertaken such assessments and plans is unfathomable. Where there is proper funding, these projects have shown giant success in alleviating impacts and, oftentimes, have taken advantage of changes climate change has created. 

Little needs to be said about the state we find ourselves in. We can continue on our present course, apathetically letting the world go over the edge, or we can try in vain to slow or stop the momentum of 200 years of industry. These are both unthinkable however, and thus we must choose the third option: adaptation. If we're willing to commit to the task at hand, then humanity may pursue prosperity in a completely different paradigm.

SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. – The debate comes down to which response is the most urgent and necessary reaction to climate change. 

Climate change is reversible and can be solved through mitigation efforts. Adaptation strategies leave families and friends in lesser developed regions to slowly wither away. Mitigation is global and long term while adaptation is local and short term. Mitigation is permanent. Adaptation must be constantly adjusted to address current damage.

Examining the scientific consensus about the origins of warming and the rate of change concludes that it can be mitigated in the short term.

Richard Muller, founder and scientific director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study, released a peer reviewed study concluding that climate change trends are due entirely to human carbon dioxide emissions. George Monbiot, former professor of environmental politics at Oxford University, proves that we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions to safe levels.

Any natural forces balance natural sources of climate change. Anthony Watts, president of weather data company Intelliweather Inc. and winner of the American Meteorological Society’s Seal of Approval (see note, below), shows that clouds have an extremely large cooling effect on the world. These forces create a zero-sum advance as natural forces cancel each other out. 

Thus, only human-made emissions, such as factory and car secretions, could cause runaway global climate change because they lack natural negative feedbacks to balance them.

Reverse course
Geoengineering provides the real answer to climate change, reversing its course permanently.

First, carbon sequestration, as described by Columbia University geophysics professor Klaus S. Lackner, takes CO2 from our atmosphere, securing it in permanent storage. Columbia University physicist Peter Eisenberger created an effective model that proves, through real world testing, that carbon sequestration can be used on a global scale and can prevent the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from ever exceeding 450 ppm, below dangerous levels. It would also bring levels down to below pre-industrial levels by 2100 and keep it there permanently.

Solar radiation management, according to the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, would reduce climate change effectively. Forms of solar radiation management, such as marine cloud whitening, lower environmental temperatures and reverse global warming’s effects.  

This preemption – that global warming is reversible and that geoengineering staves off harmful effects entirely – makes adaptation obsolete.

Destined to fail
Adaptation might be appealing, but it is destined to fail. Many countries, especially developing ones with large, vulnerable populations, will not be able to afford adaptation measures. With no accurate data to forecast climatic impacts, nations will not be able to adapt in time, which leaves them unprotected to disasters. 

The Copenhagen Consensus and the United Nations has estimated the cost of adaptation be around $140 billion to $170 billion. However, after thoroughly assessing the costs of adaptation, European ministers and climate and economy experts from Oxford and Cambridge universities have reported that the true cost of adaptation is about $500 billion dollars each year. 

Adaptation projects worth $500 billion are not a feasible option for developing countries nor a cheap option for developed ones. This fiscal reality leaves many countries unprotected to the negative impacts of climate change, including droughts, famine, and ecosystem loss.

Furthermore, cities with greater land surface and populations, such as Los Angeles or Miami, will be much more vulnerable because the timeframe to implement necessary modifications is elongated. This added obstacle would result in a failure to adapt and a significant waste of time and money. Adaptive measures for developed countries may be implemented in time, but many nations in the world will be vulnerable to runaway climate change. The shifting nature of adaptation targets will prevent timely minimization of climate effects.

Lastly, maladaptation is where the human response actively undermines the capacity of society to cope with climate change or contributes to the problem and increases the vulnerability to it. In cases of coastal zones, adaptive practices like inappropriate coastal-defense schemes and coastal-habitat conversions are maladaptive.

In cases of agriculture, drought-resistant crops proved to have a negative impact as well. Drought-resistant genes can be passed onto weedy populations, creating a new species of weeds that can reduce crop quality, interfere with harvest, serve as hosts for crop disease, and produce chemical substances that are toxic to crops. These adaptive measures have proven to hinder the ability to respond to climate change.

The first priority
Mitigation should be the first priority because, without it, the costs of adaptation would spike dramatically. Many of these adaptation mechanisms needed for Third World countries require implementing tools that can override natural disturbances caused by global warming. Leading nations have an egocentric mindset that leads them to make empty promises when vowing to contribute funds to Third World countries, as New Zealand's NewsDay opined in 2012. 

If the world is focused on adaptation, Third World countries will suffer the catastrophes caused by climate change while "rich countries will muddle through with dikes, crops redesigned to survive drought, more air conditioning and the like," Peter Passell wrote in the news magazine Foreign Policy.

Mitigation not only permanently removes greenhouse emissions from the atmosphere, it provides a worldwide solution that does not exclude any country. By having an international solution to climate change, not a single human would be in danger of extinction. 

These articles originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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