IN 1745, AS the river Liffey, having broken its banks, scratched the foundations of the house in which he was sitting, young Edmund Burke experienced a strange and perverse shiver. The man who was to found modern conservatism drew on this experience in a later essay on the sublime, writing about the unparalleled delight that terrible destruction could bring, provided it was observed from a distance.
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What is most terrible about the spectacular destruction scenes that have unfolded around the world in recent weeks is that there is no safe place to observe them. The ground under the German city of Erftstadt is torn like tissue paper by the floodwaters; Lytton in BC is wiped off the map just a day after setting an unusually high temperature record; cars float like dead fish in the streets transformed into canals of the Chinese city of Zhengzhou. The whole world feels in danger, and most are.
Greenhouse gas emissions produced a planet more than 1 ° C (1.8 ° F) hotter than it was in Burke’s pre-industrial days. Its atmosphere, loaded and unbalanced, produces severe weather in a way that is both predictable and surprising. And, as the shows continue, it will get worse.
Sadly, 2021 will likely be one of the coolest years of the 21st century. If temperatures rise 3 ° C from pre-industrial levels in the coming decades, as could be the case even if everyone manages to honor today’s firm commitments, large parts of the tropics risk becoming too much. warmers for outdoor work. Coral reefs and the livelihoods that depend on them will disappear and the Amazon rainforest will become a ghost of itself. Serious harvest failures will be commonplace. The Antarctic and Greenland ice caps will retract past the point of no return, promising sea elevations measured not in millimeters, as is the case today, but in meters.
Six years ago in Paris, countries around the world pledged to avert the worst of this nightmare by eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough to keep rising temperatures below 2 ° C. Their progress towards this end remains woefully insufficient. Yet even if their efforts increased enough to meet the 2 ° C target, that would not prevent forests from burning today; the meadows would dry up again tomorrow, the rivers would break their banks and the mountain glaciers would disappear.
It is not enough, therefore, to reduce emissions. The world must also urgently invest in adaptation to climate change. The good news is that adaptation makes political sense. People can clearly see the need for it. When a country invests in flood protection, it primarily benefits its own citizens – there is no stowaway problem, as there might be with emission reduction. Not all the money comes from the public purse either; businesses and individuals can see the need to adapt and act accordingly. When they don’t, insurance companies can open their eyes to the risks they face.
Some adaptations are quite easily put in place. The systems for warning Germans of upcoming floods are sure to improve now. But other problems require much larger public investment, such as the one that has been devoted to water management in the Netherlands. Rich countries can afford such things. Poor countries and poor alike need help, which is why the Paris climate agreement calls for annual transfers of $ 100 billion from the rich to the poor.
Rich countries have yet to live up to their share of this. On July 20, John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, reiterated the United States’ pledge to triple its support to $ 1.5 billion for adaptation in the poorest countries by 2024, as part of a broader movement to increase investment in adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. More such efforts are vital.
But they also have limits. Settling for less water may be possible; get by is not. Certain temperature and humidity levels make outdoor activities impossible. There is one too many floods, after which you abandon the land. When the reef is gone, it’s gone.
If the Paris objective of keeping the rise below 2 ° C is reached, all of these limits will not be tested. But the zeal for reducing emissions may not accelerate as needed. And the climate system could turn out to be more sensitive than it has shown so far, as some scientists believe possible, producing more warming per tonne of carbon in the atmosphere.
It is therefore also prudent to study the most spectacular and frightening form of adaptation: solar geoengineering. This seeks to make clouds or layers of particles in the atmosphere a bit more mirror-like, reflecting some sunlight. It cannot provide an equal and opposite direct response to warming greenhouse gases; it will tend, for example, to reduce precipitation a little more than temperature, potentially modifying precipitation regimes. But research over the past 15 years has suggested that solar geoengineering could significantly reduce some of the damage caused by the warming greenhouse effect.
What no one knows yet is how such programs could be developed in a way that reflects not only the interests of their instigators, but also those of all the countries they will affect. Different countries may seek different amounts of cooling; some ways of implementing solar geoengineering would help some regions while harming others. Nor is there yet a convincing answer to the risk that the very idea of such things tomorrow will reduce the incentive to be ambitious in reducing emissions today.
When good men do nothing
Thinking about solar geoengineering requires dealing with these issues – and the risk that powers that have little interest in it might try such projects anyway. It also means facing directly what kind of being humanity has become. Watching the rising waters of the Liffey, Burke “considered how small the man is, but in his mind how … Master of all things, yet rare can command anything.” Manipulating the climate that humanity has destabilized – unwittingly at first – arouses similar thoughts of simultaneous power and helplessness. It is not nature that humans cannot control, but themselves, in all their insignificance and world-changing power. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “No Safe Place”