Ever heard this one: Even if the Earth's climate changes, warmer temperatures will be good for America -- longer growing seasons, perhaps? Or its cousin: Humans will simply do what they've done for millennia -- adapt to changing temperatures with different technology and behaviors? Isn't that better than letting that Al Gore do whatever it is that he wants to do?
Actually, this is a treacherously seductive line of argument, and a report Tuesday on the Chesapeake Bay coastline from Washington's local NPR station, WAMU, shows why. Virginia is experiencing the fastest sea-level rise on the East Coast because of rising ocean levels combined with sinking coastal land. That is, it offers us a glimpse of the sorts of things that might be in store for coastal communities that only have to deal with global-warming-induced sea-level rise.
Residents complain about swamped docks and flooded streets. And Larry Atkinson, a professor at Old Dominion University, says that Northrop Grumman is worried after its dry dock in Newport News flooded last year. If this occurred regularly, it would halt production of aircraft carriers and other naval operations at a site that could otherwise be productive for decades. A 2009 Northrop Grumman report found that "future rise in sea-level is uncertain only in magnitude," imperiling the company's "several multi-billion dollar national assets" on American coasts.
Humans have adapted to life in a pretty narrow and predictable band of temperatures. It's foolish to dismiss the many and often obscure costs of adapting all this infrastructure we have built to different circumstances.
Clearly, we will have to do some adaptation to temperature increases already on the way. And geoengineering -- altering the planet to mitigate the effects of global warming -- could make climate change more tolerable and give us time to green the economy. But the question is how to strike the balance between adaptation and prevention, not whether we should simply throw up our hands and insist that we'll just get along like usual.