Deep Adaptation and the Science of Climate Change – The New York Times

Source: Deep Adaptation and the Science of Climate Change – The New York Times

Two years ago, an influential paper suggested that we were too late to save the world.

This paper helped rewrite the direction of British universities, played a major role in reshaping the missions of climate organizations and religious institutions, had a significant impact on British activism and has been translated into at least nine languages. It made its author into something of a climate change messiah.

…Other high-profile papers, like “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” also from 2018, and Timothy Lenton’s overview of tipping points, published in Nature the following year, have galvanized the climate movement. But this self-published paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating the Climate Tragedy,” had a different, more personal, feel.

The paper’s central thought is that we must accept that nothing can reverse humanity’s fate and we must adapt accordingly. And the paper’s bleak, vivid details — emphasizing that the end is truly nigh, and that it will be gruesome — clearly resonated.

“When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life,” wrote the author, Jem Bendell. “With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbors for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”

Since publication, much of the way the science is summarized in the paper has been debunked by climatologists. But even if the math doesn’t add up, does that make the dark conclusion any less meaningful?

…Mr. Bendell, who is a professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria in England, said: “My own conclusion that it is too late to prevent a breakdown in modern civilization in most countries within our lifetimes is not purely based on an assessment of climate science.”

“It’s based on my view of society, politics, economics from having worked on probably 25 countries across five continents, worked in the intergovernmental sector of the U.N., been part of the World Economic Forum, working in senior management in environmental groups, being on boards of investment funds,” he said. “You know, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades.”

…Earlier this year, Emily Atkin, an environmental journalist who had not even heard of Deep Adaptation — let alone read it — wrote about a repeating cycle she’d observed.

“The phenomenon is some dude who is really smart in some other way, and has expertise in something else, perhaps stumbles upon climate change, takes about one month to a year to think about it — and then decides that all of a sudden they have the solution that nobody else has thought about,” she said, asked to explain the pattern in an interview. “And they don’t consult with a diverse array of experts before releasing it. They do reporting that confirms their own biases.

“And then they put out a product that uses very strong language, stronger language than the evidence that they have justifies, to paint a picture that the reason we haven’t solved this is because everyone has been wrong. No one has thought of their great idea yet. And the idea is, honestly, usually that we’re screwed.”

One criticism that emerged of Deep Adaptation more specifically was that this vague forthcoming disaster that Mr. Bendell was describing was already happening to many people — just not yet to the Western academics, bankers and journalists whose interests he had piqued.

…Dr. Marvel reviewed some of the science in the paper more recently and said that it was filled with errors and misconceptions. For instance, Mr. Bendell writes that the loss of the reflective power of ice in the Arctic is such that even a removal of a quarter of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of the last three decades would be outweighed by the damage already done.

Dr. Marvel said that this represents a basic misunderstanding. Though ice melting represented a feedback loop, she said, in which an effect of the climate becoming warmer itself contributed to further warming, there was a conflation in Mr. Bendell’s thought between that feedback loop and a so-called tipping point.

Mr. Hall and Mr. Nicholas, 26, came to believe that Deep Adaptation was wrong to teach people that the struggle was already lost. In the fall of 2019, they decided to write a rebuttal.

“The fundamental battle in climate change right now is whether or not we can understand it as a primarily political struggle — rather than a scientific or natural struggle — and then win that struggle,” Mr. Hall said. “Deep Adaptation or fatalism in general is just one way of depoliticizing it because it puts everything up to inhuman forces.”

In July, with Colleen Schmidt, who is 24 and has a degree in environmental biology from Columbia — and who acted as their de facto editor — they published a paper. …

The three young people who wrote the paper rebutting Deep Adaptation agree that the climate crisis has already resulted in horrific loss and that it will continue to exact a heavy toll. But they also believe that governments around the world can still make a difference and should be held to account, instead of being lulled into inaction by despair.

We’ve lost some things,” Ms. Schmidt said. “We could lose everything. But there is no reason not to try and make what can work, work.”

“Even if you somehow knew that the chance of success was small,” Mr. Nicholas said, “you would still be morally obligated to try your best to limit the damages and to keep working.”

Jonah Engel Bromwich is a news and features reporter. He writes about cultural change — shifts in the way we date, eat, think and use language and technology — for the Style section. @jonesieman

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