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The Accelerating Climate Crisis: Tweak or Transformation?

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Organic Transitions Page.

"There are no experts."

This was my biggest take-away message from the inaugural National Adaptation Forum, held in Denver recently. Although it was my second major climate change adaptation conference in three weeks, I wasn't sure what to expect. In Europe, there's no need to whisper the words " climate change" in large gatherings for fear of offending someone, but America is different. Would people even attend a three-day conference on adaptation? And what would the presenters talk about in the sessions? I jumped into a rental car and drove to Denver to find out.

The Forum's organizers were curious too - to the point of being fretful. One organizer told the large crowd that filled the hotel ballroom on the opening day that registrations lagged so badly that one point she worried that the conference would be a failure. Then a last-minute rush of sign-ups occurred and suddenly the event was sold out! Over 500 people were in attendance, she said, with many more people on a waiting list. The excitement and relief in her voice were palpable (emotions I know well from hosting our own big conference). It reminded me of a satirical Onion piece titled: Owner of Children's Hospital Thrilled That Every Bed Is Full! Welcome to the first-ever national conference on how bad things are getting out there! We're thrilled you're here to share your adaptation anxieties and tales of woe!

When it comes to climate change, we want the beds to be empty, not full. Alas, the beds are filling up fast, as I heard over and over.

What is adaptation anyway? One speaker usefully described it as a type of first responder - i.e., individuals, groups, communities, and cities who see the early effects of a warming world, sense an emergency in the making, and are taking action. First responders aren't particularly interested in why the emergency happened. Their job is to deliver aid, fix things that are broken, troubleshoot, and deal with the mess generally. Many of the presenters at the Forum, for example, accept the inevitability of sea level rise and reported on a variety of plans by cities to adapt to the situation, however incrementally. Other speakers discussed faster-acting effects of climate change, particularly on plants and animals. Heat-induced stress or a lack of food brought on by drought conditions are beginning to impact a wide variety of species, they reported. In these cases, triage might be an appropriate metaphor.

Which raised a question in my mind: are we first responders to a roadside accident or a battlefield? Both, I learned. Accidents are happening now, but battlefields are coming. And it was made very clear that if greenhouse gas emissions aren't curbed soon we are all going to be living in battlefields of large proportions.


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