400 ppm and an Age of Adaptation

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The past few days’ worth of environment and conservation news have been dusted, however lightly (or heavily), with the latest CO2 measurements  coming out of the Manua Loa Observatory. Yes, we have reached the dreaded milestone: 400 parts per million.

The ecological implications of this historical concentration of CO2 in our planet are vast. Every ecosystem and our built environment face big challenges, from the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters to the vulnerability of current urban infrastructureagriculture, and forests that we hear and read so much about, often through a lens of doom. Glaciers melting, people starving, countries flooding, species disappearing at previously unimaginable rates. The climate change community has learned a few lessons about the doom communication strategy, and if we can agree on just one of those lessons, let it be that it simply does not work. Desperation is not inspiring nor does it call us to action; simply put, it’s not the best recruitment tool we’ve got. I don’t propose we deny the clearly daunting challenges ahead, but I encourage us to avoid saturating our messages with terrifying depictions that shut us down and incapacitate a movement.

Two years ago, a friend and I wondered what we were at the very core: optimists? pessimists? As a seemingly very optimistic person, I admitted to often feeling like I was actually more of a dedicated pessimist. I knew we were in deep trouble, arguably screwed, but I felt committed to keeping at it anyways. But what came after that confession has changed the way I have approached my work and hopes for climate action in a very profound way. This friend challenged me to imagine what would be possible if instead of pessimism we made dedicated optimism the foundation of our work. If you’re not absolutely sure there is some hope, he said, we’ve already lost this battle. At all of 22 years old. And that, of course, was unacceptable.

So what to make of the 400 ppm news? Let it not be that we are gone beyond hope, that any solutions will all come, if ever, too late. I propose we use it as a humbling reminder of the magnitude of the challenge before us, the need for our work, for our optimism. Let this be proof of the undeniable Age of Adaptation we now live in, and couple our ideas and vision for mitigation with ambitious efforts to adapt and vice versa.

On that note, here are a few things I have found noteworthy in the world of mitigation and adaptation. These are testament to the unwillingness of billions to give up, to throw their hands up in the air and claim it’s too late, too daunting.