Climate Change Doesn't Have to Mean the End of the World

Stopping global warming might be a hopeless cause, but that doesn't mean we can't find creative solutions to live with it. 

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(Reuters)

This week the National Climate Data Center confirmed what most had long believed: 2012 was the warmest year on record for the United States. Ever. And not just a bit warmer: a full Fahrenheit degree warmer than in 1998, the previous high. In the land of climatology statistics, that is immense. In the understatement of one climate scientist, these findings are "a big deal."

Almost every news story reporting on this juxtaposed the record with a series of disruptive climate events, ranging from the drought that covered much of the United States farmland and punctuated by Hurricane Sandy in its tens of billions of dollars of devastation. Many also pointed out that eight of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 1990 (though it should be noted that official records only extend to 1895). Not surprisingly, these observations were almost always followed by warnings of more warming and substantially worse consequences to come.

But what if climate change isn't the disaster we fear but instead one more obstacle that humans can meet, one that may spur innovation and creativity as well as demand ever more resilience? What if it ultimately improves life as we know it?

That the planet is getting warmer there should be no doubt. Nor should there be much question about the role of human development, industrialization and carbon emissions as a causal factor. Of course, many do still question these changes, or at least to what degree they have been triggered by human activity, and yes, there have been wide climate swings throughout the millennia. Still, the preponderance of current scientific knowledge maintains that warming is accelerating and that fossil fuels and various effluvia of modern industry are a cause.

It does not, however, follow that the future arc of these changes is disastrous. Unwanted, unwelcome and uneasy? For sure. Potentially lethal? Yes. But so much of the debate over the past 30 years has been over what is causing climate change, and how to prevent more change from happening, that comparatively less energy has been spent on adapting to it. In part, those most focused on these issues, from Green parties in Europe to environmentalists in the United States, have often believed that any discussion of mitigating the effects of climate change is tantamount to giving up on preventing it. That has led to a jeremiad mentality, epitomized by Al Gore and the scathing warnings of what lies ahead in his hugely influential 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

The advantage of that approach was that it alerted many to the dangers of climate change; the disadvantage was that it scared people into passivity and closed fruitful avenues to policies focused on mitigating the effects rather than halting the trend. And while halting the trend might have been feasible (just) 20 years ago, the most we can achieve now is to reduce the rate and intensity of climate change until the world's population levels off sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Activists can and should still focus on reducing global emissions, but not at the expense of answering how we will live with the change.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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