Adapting to Climate Change

The Earth is warming, but Washington is frozen, so localities keep finding new ways to muddle through.

Do you believe in climate change?

As an international summit meeting on climate change gets underway in Paris this week, the political conversation around global warming in the United States often begins this way: with a question about beliefs. Climate change—like gun control, abortion, or immigration—has become another way for political parties and their members to define themselves.

The split is pretty clear. A resounding 86 percent of Democrats believe solid evidence exists to prove the Earth is warming, but just 45 percent of Republicans feel the same way, according to a report by the Pew Research Center in June. Things get even messier when you ask people why the Earth is warming: 64 percent of Democrats think human activity is a culprit, but only 22 percent of Republicans agree.

This ideological chasm makes the prospects of climate-change legislation at the federal level look dim indeed. Even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, in 2009 and 2010, the drive to pass a far-reaching law to curb greenhouse-gas emissions unraveled in the Senate, after legislative sponsors from both parties bailed on a plan (dubbed “cap-and-trade”) to use market forces to help energy businesses cut down on pollution.

Internationally, the outlook seems just as daunting. The lofty goal of the Paris conference is to sign a legally binding agreement—the result of five years of discussions and deal-making—that aims to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2050. The U.S. Senate isn’t likely to approve a full-blown treaty, given Republicans’ presumed opposition, so the Obama administration will push for a less sovereignty-challenging version of an international agreement.

Regardless of what Americans believe or don’t believe, the average global temperatures have risen over the past several decades, according to well-regarded international scientific institutions. A study in 2013 of climate scientists who had published papers in peer-reviewed journals found that 97 percent of those who took a position on the causes of global warming agreed that human activity was partly to blame.

The world’s sea level has been rising at roughly a tenth of an inch per year, according to satellite data collected since the 1990s, which threatens lowlands in places as different as South Florida and New York City. Life is getting hotter in arid places such as Texas, which has seen average daily temperatures rise by more than a half-degree per decade since 1970. Rainfall has grown more intense in the Midwest.

Americans may disagree on why these things are happening and whether the weather will keep getting worse. But they’re happening. So, if legislative action is stymied that might reduce carbon emissions and thereby prevent the problem from getting worse, what can a greenhouse-baked populace do? The answer is: adapt. And with Washington dysfunctional, local governments and businesses around the country are taking innovative steps to do just that.

These steps needn’t be partisan; at the local level, ideology gives way to practicality. In the frontline of extreme weather, people want an end to flooded basements, and they don’t much care much whether believers or nonbelievers, liberals or conservatives, supply the solutions. Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has studied how cities can learn to bounce back. Local officials don’t need to believe in climate change to respond to it, she says. “The closer the elected official is to the ground and the more they are required to deliver every day," she explains, "the less they focus on the causes and the more they’re focusing on the reality of these shocks and the fact that they need to prepare for them better.”

Look at the small city of Dubuque, Iowa, forced into a $200 million public works project to alleviate flooding that scientists say has been aggravated by climate change. The Republican governor of Iowa sounds indecisive about whether the climate is warming and why, but an increase in sudden, heavy rainfalls during the past several decades finally persuaded Dubuque—with the state government's financial help—to take major steps to prevent the deluges that periodically wash out low-lying neighborhoods along the Mississippi River. When there’s a foot of water in your basement, climate change feels tangible—and smells.

A climate event itself can often lead to better planning for extreme weather to come. Aside from the wake-up call for victims, there’s sometimes a practical return—money from the federal or state government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that every dollar spent to protect cities from weather-related damage would save $3 or $4 in recovery work.

Once the waters have subsided, the experience sticks. Ask residents in Miami Beach. During the past decade, they’ve experienced an increase in sunny-day flooding, when seawater surges up through storm sewers. Bigger threats could lie ahead; a report by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, a bipartisan coalition of four coastal counties in southern Florida, found the sea could rise by as much as two feet by 2060, jeopardizing valuable shoreline property.

“I think we are a great place to convert nonbelievers into believers on sea-level rise,” says Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is currently overseeing the completion of a $400 million project to ease flooding by raising 30 percent of the city's roads, installing pumps, and replenishing dunes, among other measures. The mayor is a registered Democrat but sees this as a nonpartisan issue. “When you look at that ocean, it’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat—it just knows how to rise,” he says.

Environmental activists haven’t given up on the possibility of action to attack the problem at its source, by trying to halt or at least slow the changes in climate. Solar panels, electric cars, and recycling, not to mention political advocacy, can bring reductions in carbon emissions.

But adapting to climate change seems likelier than preventing it. Evidence: A private marketplace is springing up. Take Patrick Bulot, a roofer in Houston, who isn’t particularly swayed one way or the other about the actuality or causes of global warming. Yet he has a patent pending for his “Texas Smart Roof” and has found a niche installing metal roofs meant to keep homes cooler during the city’s scorching summers. Bulot is no environmental crusader. But he’s an innovator, spurred on by the most replicable of motives—earning a buck.

The original version of this story said that Bulot already holds the patent for the Texas Smart Roof.