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.
Perhaps in recognition of the need of a new paradigm, "resilience" has quietly become a buzzword. The ever provocative Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his recent book Antifragile argues that only organizations capable of meeting crises can survive crises. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, counties and cities in the Northeast have been contemplating how best to prepare for future weather shocks. That has led to renewed appreciation for cities, such as Rotterdam, that have long undertaken environmental planning organized around the notion that floods will happen no matter what humans do. The challenge isn't to find a way to prevent floods; it's to find a way to live with them.
The two approaches could not be more distinct: One warns of catastrophe and attempts to steer away from it. One pragmatically accepts that some undesirable things will happen no matter what. Rotterdam has thus focused both on preventing as much flooding as possible (floodgates) and on urban infrastructure that is as flood-resistant as possible: power grids that have dispersed nodes, waterproof insulation, even floating parts of the city in case of truly severe inundation.