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Adapting to Climate Change

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For the last couple of decades, the people who've been arguing that we have to do something to reduce the greenhouse emissions causing global warming avoided one subject:

"People did not want to talk about adaptation or coping with climate change because that was seen as a cop-out."

That's Rosina Bierbaum. She was a science advisor during the Clinton administration and is now the Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan.

The fear was, if you could figure out a way to cope with global warming, you wouldn't do anything to reduce the emissions causing it.

But Bierbaum says with concensus among the majority of the scientists in the world that global warming is happening and humans are contributing, the point has been made. Time to move on:

"It's only really been, I would say, in the last two years that the science has become so clear, that the changes are occurring so fast. And we're seeing them already... that society is realizing we've got to cope with those changes now and there are more in store for us."

Actually, Bierbaum thinks we're really kind of behind in thinking about the consequences of global warming. It's not just the polar ice caps melting and the rising sea levels. There are a lot of everyday sort of things that will likely change.

For instance, what kind of plants should you put in your home landscaping? Will the tree you plant today survive in the changing climate? How flexible is your business if the climate changes weather patterns?

Thomas Karl is the Director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says people have to start thinking about things like that. And Karl says it's not just higher temperatures, but sudden dramatic changes, such as maybe no snow in the Northern states for a couple of years at a time. Or dry spells that could make rivers so low that barges can't travel up and down them:

"What really has important impacts are the extreme events. I think the questions being asked along these lines are 'How vulnerable am I to these episodic conditions?' and 'What do we need to do to prepare ourselves for the possibility that things may not change gradually, but could be quite abrupt change?'"

Some of those extreme events are heavier storms. As hurricane Katrina showed, that could affect a lot of things. For example, the oil industry is looking at its refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. With more and more intense hurricanes, could it be worth building refineries somewhere else?

There's a lot at risk.

Franklin Nutter is the President of the Reinsurance Association of America: the insurers of the insurance companies. He says with more forest fires in the West, and unpredictability in agriculture, and more violent storm surges on the coasts... all due to climate change, it's going to cost:

"Someone has to pay for the repair and recovery. If the insurance mechanism is going to be the intermediary that translates those costs into people's premiums, then the answer is insurance premiums are going to have to match those."

And that means we're all going to pay higher insurance costs because some people and businesses are going to ignore, or miscalculate, how climate change is going to affect them:

"The Association of British Insurers did a study looking at just the effect of climate change on insurability and held steady population growth, property values, all of those things. And they concluded that you could see insurance premiums rise by 60% by mid-century just as a result of climate change."

That means if nothing changed: no inflation, no currency change... nothing except global warming, insurance rates go up 60% during the next 30 to 40 years. You're already seeing it.

Some climate change experts say we can slow the impacts of global warming by reducing greenhouse emissions now. But we're already seeing change... and we will see more.

There will be winners in global climate change. Some growing seasons will be extended. Some areas will get more precipitation. But there will likely be a lot more losers as businesses and people either can't or won't adjust to the changing climate of their region.

For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

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