Eli has pointed out that something like the WAIS collapse, once it enters the final stage, which only takes decades, cannot be adapted to, and, given that the long slide towards an inevitable collapse has begun, mitigation is a train that has long left the station.
A word from Dano, more of a world view about what to do
By now, bunnies surely have shared carrots at the bar discussing the two new papers about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) passing a ‘tipping point’ to an inevitable collapse. I’m interested in the way so many outlets recently reported about “tipping points” – especially in the context of decades‐old warnings about the WAIS instability. Especially with respect to the threat to coastal cities and the additional sea level rise from the WAIS.
So what are ‘tipping points’ anyway? In simple terms, it is the “point” at which change occurs beyond which there is no return. In ecological terms, it is the “point” at which ecosystems “flip” into a different state, which can be more or less stable than the previous state. I like to modify this visualization below, originally from Bass that attempts to depict social diffusion to help explain tipping points. The inflection point I sometimes label as an ‘a‐ha’ moment depending on the audience:
In the previous paragraph, I put “points” in non‐scare quotes because these “points” depend on scale and in terms of time, can take years or centuries. The important…erm… point to remember here is that our senses cannot perceive slow‐moving phenomena (hence, science) and therefore confusion and lack of understanding is always present in understanding phenomena taking years or centuries. This fact is part of the reaction to the sensationalist headlines from the recent findings – some saw the scale of the announcement; others saw the scale of the “disaster” so far in the future as to be incomprehensible (and thus, not actionable).
Scale is important in human endeavors too. When practitioners talk about “sustainability”, if they are educated in the sciences they mean something paraphrased from Brundtland: “not using it all up now and saving some for future generations”.
OK, great. So what?
It is safe to say that in human endeavors, too often action is not taken or change is not made until some threat is recognized. I often describe the change process as:
We are not “sustainable” now. We likely haven’t been for a century or so at current consumption levels.
And, with the realization of the impact of the WAIS on sea levels, we are even less “sustainable” than before, because of something in ecology called “emergent phenomena”, or in layman’s terms, “surprises”. We simply cannot plan to “sustain” a way of life in an indefinite future full of surprise. Also, a city may be “sustainable” for a century, then a storm overtops the seawall and “sustainability” is lost.
What then? We should plan for even longer time frames?
So “sustainability” is a poorly‐considered goal. Now what? Personally, I think we should drop the term “sustainable”, which has been co‐opted by business, diluting all remaining meaning. In my opinion, ”resilient” is a better term to describe both a goal and a process for cities. Resilient, in ecology and other disciplines, basically means “being able to recover from disturbance or shock.” Whether or not that recovery is in the same state is irrelevant. Recovery is relevant. Adaptability, flexibility, perseverance and planning are important to human resilience – things we used to do and still do now. Being resilient means being prepared, and being prepared means tipping points aren’t scary.
Before we moved to cities and became specialized, humans were very resilient. It’s in our genes. We just forgot (and got lazy because of cheap energy) how to do it. I think we have enough time to remember.