At a UN climate meeting in 2007, John Holdren, who would later become President Barack Obama’s chief science advisor, famously said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.” Most writing about technology and climate change still concentrates on mitigation—i.e., reducing emissions, by means of clean energy sources, better batteries, sleek electric vehicles, and so on—or, if all else fails, heroic efforts like engineering the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space. These technologies are often futuristic and cool, and create a comforting narrative that humanity’s scientific smarts will save it from its political stupidity.
This issue of MIT Technology Review rests on the premise that while one should never give up on mitigation, it’s time to start talking more about adaptation and suffering—about the technologies the human race will need in a catastrophically altered world, and about the economic, political, and social realities of living in it.
We start off with some harsh truths about mitigation. The growth in renewables has made virtually no dent in the use of fossil fuels; it’s come largely at the expense of nuclear energy, another low-carbon source. But a nuclear comeback looks increasingly unlikely now that corruption scandals have sunk South Korea’s nuclear program, one of the world’s most ambitious. Even with valiant efforts to use more renewables, countries like India will drag the world’s emissions up as they strive for higher living standards.
We then move to adaptation. America’s farming heartland is a crucial source of staple foods for a warming world, and the race is on to find new crop breeds engineered for resilience as the region becomes hotter. Similarly, hardier strains of coffee might protect farmers in Central America from losing their livelihoods. Livestock herders in Africa are coming to rely on satellite imaging to pinpoint the increasingly scarce vegetation and watering holes for their flocks. Californians who lost their houses during last year’s wildfires can look to Australia as a case study in how to plan for fires and build homes that will withstand them. In Mexico, where seaweed blooms caused by warming seas are threatening to strangle the tourist industry, researchers are working on ways to turn the invasive species into food or fuel. New York City’s plan for protecting itself against sea-level rise is a taste of what coastal cities around the world will have to face. And localized geoengineering techniques might keep the oceans a shade cooler, enough to preserve some of the most valuable coral reefs from destruction.
No less important is the work being done to understand how bad the suffering will be, and where. New predictive models, relying on masses of data, are providing a better idea of where people will be displaced. Similarly, data-intensive research is reducing the wide band of uncertainty about how much global temperatures will rise. And other modeling is making it increasingly clear that the harms will be unevenly distributed: some regions will even enjoy benefits from warmer temperatures. Meanwhile, India’s looming water crisis is a stark warning of what the rest of the world has to look forward to.
Ultimately, of course, climate change affects everyone. To grasp what that really means, read Paolo Bacigalupi’s chilling fictional depiction of a near-future America, and Roy Scranton’s essay on how living with climate change will mean ditching some of our most basic assumptions about what constitutes a normal, good life. Start preparing mentally for this new world. Because to take action on either mitigation or adaptation, one first needs to be able to visualize the suffering.