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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Climate Change: Adaptation or Prevention

Elli and I attended the Western Massachusetts Climate Justice Conference last month. It was designed to bridge the class divide between those working to stop global warming, and those struggling for economic justice. I was impressed with the age, race and class diversity of the more than 250 participants who included both middle-class professionals and college students who live in the smaller towns of our area, and poorer people, many of color, concentrated in the cities of Springfield and Holyoke. It was a very encouraging start to what hopefully will be a region-wide alliance of people who realize that health, environment, climate and economic justice are inextricably entwined.

But bridging class and race gaps is neither simple nor easy. Before the conference one of the organizers contacted the director of a local group that is focused on protecting the water quality of the Connecticut River. The organizer wanted to discuss participation in the conference. She was told that this group had decided not to work on issues around preventing climate change, but instead would focus their energies on mitigating the damage caused by - and adapting to - global warming.

It turns out that the Keystone Pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, provides some of that group’s funds. I don’t know how much impact this funding has had on the organization’s decision not to work directly against climate change, but I’m concerned that this environmental group is avoiding work on climate change prevention because it would force them to take a strong position against the pipeline.

This interaction got me thinking more generally about climate change “prevention” strategies verses “mitigation” or “adaptation.” (Perhaps “adaptation” is a better word than “mitigation.” The latter is ambiguous. Efforts focused on mitigating global warming can contribute to its prevention, but efforts designed only to lessen the damage merely try to adjust to climate change.)

There is a strong class bias built into strategies that primarily promote adaptation. Adaptation is expensive. The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Much of their country lies below sea level and global warming is causing sea level to rise. They have committed to spending 140 billion dollars to raise the gargantuan levies that protect them. Many millions more are threatened by rising sea levels in Bangladesh, but they can’t afford such public works. That nation’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2012 was only 115.6 billion dollars.

Those of us who live in wealthier communities have more resources to help us adapt: to clean up rivers or toxic waste sites or set aside nature preserves. But adaptation is at best a short term and piece-meal approach. It will protect some people and some resources, but it is more likely to bypass the most vulnerable, and will never solve a planetary problem. This is not to say we should ignore the threats to residents of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, or Staten Island for that matter, but efforts to protect them must complement rather than compete with prevention work.

We’ve reached the point where we must always take the big picture into account. To adjust the phrase, we must act both locally and globally. And that means, among other things, that overcoming our class differences has become essential. That’s why the Springfield Conference was so important.
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