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"Adapting" to the Climate Crisis: That Was Easy

Brian Moench

Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, admitted recently that global warming is not a hoax, but that we needn’t worry: "We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around — we’ll adapt to that. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions."  Tillerson’s buddies at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce added, "Populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations." 

Worldwide, a billion people are already dangerously malnourished, with the climate crisis playing a major role.  But apparently those facing starvation should stop whining and look forward to "adapting" by "engineering" their bodies to not need food.

And here’s how that "adaptation" thing is going in America. The average July temperature in the US this summer was 5.5 degrees hotter than in 1896.  Record-breaking heat and drought are torching two thirds of the country. Natural disasters have been declared in 32 states, the most in our history. Much of the Midwest grain crop has "physiologically adapted" to this new climate, by dying. You and I will soon "financially adapt" by paying a lot more for food.

The wells supplying water to some MidWestern families are "adapting" by drying up.  Mississippi River flow is at a 40 year low allowing, among other things, salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to creep north, threatening larger community water supplies.

Forty million acres of Western forests have "acclimatized" to the stress of heat and drought by expiring from pine beetle infestation — a direct result of climate warming. Since 2010, unprecedented wildfires have overwhelmed Western and Southern states. Oklahoma is currently enjoying its turn "adapting" to the new climate — 113-degree temperatures and explosive wildfires roaring across the state.

Warmer, more acidic oceans (from increases in heat-trapping CO2) are forcing the foundation of marine ecosystems — phytoplankton — to "acclimatize" by disappearing. These tiny organisms consume CO2 to produce half the world’s oxygen, equaling that of trees and plants on land. Ocean phytoplankton has fallen 40 percent since 1950. Most of the coral reefs are now "adapting" by bleaching (the first stage of dying).  Note to Tillerson and the Chamber: Land and ocean ecosystems are interdependent (Ecology 101).  In fact the fossil and climate record shows strong evidence that if marine life is obliterated, land-based ecosystems, the basis for human survival, will "adapt" by collapsing from massive, toxic climate disruptions (see Under a Green Sky by University of Washington paleontology professor, Peter Ward).

Water temperature in Midwestern streams has soared this summer, causing millions of fish to "physiologically adapt" by floating to the surface, dead, including 40,000 sturgeon and numerous endangered species. So many fish died in one Illinois lake that the carcasses clogged a power plant’s intake screen, forcing a partial shutdown.

Water hot enough to kill fish cannot adequately cool nuclear power plants, so they are also "technologically adapting" by becoming more dangerous. Last week, the temperature of the reservoir water used to cool the Illinois Braidwood nuclear power plant exceeded the safety limit of 98 degrees. The end result? Efficiency, safety and power output all drop during extreme heat. The same is true of coal-fired power plants.

The non-profit Electric Power Research Institute, scientists and engineers funded by the power-generating industries themselves, released a study that proponents of nuclear power should have to memorize like the pledge of allegiance.  Their study specifically warned of the threat a warming climate posed to all thermoelectric power plants.  No U.S. nuclear reactors were designed factoring in water temperatures as high as we are now seeing.  All their owners have done so far is ignore the warnings and declare hotter cooling water "safe," as was the case at Braidwood last week and at other nuclear plants as well.

New nuclear reactors approved this year for construction in Georgia, and soon in South Carolina, don’t address this problem, either. It turns out the nuclear industry is "technologically adapting" to our new, more dangerous climate — by ignoring it.

Fossil-fuel cheerleaders continue to claim that we have little to worry about. Apparently, Americans will "behaviorally adapt" to decimated agriculture, ecosystems and energy infrastructure by having our "engineers" help us invade Canada, where it’s cooler.

Whew! That was easy.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Brian Moench

Dr. Brian Moench is President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a practicing anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City. He is a former adjunct faculty member at the University of Utah.

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