The Environment

The New Abnormal?: Adaptation, Optimism, and Why We Can’t Wait

June 23, 2012

“We’re moving ahead of what’s normal (in terms of climate change),” Executive Editor of National Geographic Dennis Dimick told the crowd at the Environment Forum’s opening plenary discussion. “So perhaps what we are really living in is the new abnormal.”

“All of our weather is different than the weather we used to have, it’s just most of the time we don’t notice,” Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said. “When we go outside the bounds of the previous temperatures, rainfalls, and heat waves, that’s we take notice.”

Noting that these extremes are increasing in frequency and severity, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes stressed the need for a quick and comprehensive appraisal of the shifting eco-landscape. “We’re taking a page from President Obama with a ‘we can’t wait approach,” he said. “We’re working with private landowners, local communities, and states. The Federal government cannot be the only player here, it’s too big for us.” 

William Chameides, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, emphasized the need for scope as well as scale. “Adaptation needs to happen as something that is integrated into everything we do. If we’re talking about public health, in that conversation about public health we need to worry about adaptation. If we’re worried about coastal development, in that conversation about coastal development, we need to worry about adaptation. 

But despite the dispiriting pace of climate change, Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College David Orr gave the crowd a constructive philosophy to take with them: “If you’re optimistic, you don’t know enough. If you’re pessimistic, you’ll be ineffective. Hope is that sweet spot in between, with its sleeves rolled up.”