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We Survived Climate Change Eons Ago, but Could We Survive Today? Not Unless We Act Much More Swiftly Immediately

By Joyce Coffee

A compelling ad for The Great Course on investing shows a man's hands grasping a giant golden egg. It reminds me of the ever-present effort to learn from the past. Yet, with climate change, have we learned valuable ancient lessons or are we doomed to repeat past mistakes?

We humans survived an abrupt shift in the climate to bitter cold conditions 11,000 years ago and, in brilliant pictographs, Egyptian pharaohs related how they survived epic drought. Paleontologists and anthropologists find in the historic record of bones, household implements and living quarters that abrupt and harsh changes in climate over decades forced populations to move to survive. These climate disruptions also triggered population crashes and cultural changes.
Researchers speak of the intrepid prehistoric humans the way we speak of today's preppers: "These hunter-gatherers had a lot of skills and knowledge of how to use the natural resources. They could make shelters and houses and hunt, fish and collect plant materials." Some at a well-researched site in northern England practiced and endured enough resilience that they did not have to abandon their homes or significantly change their way of life. A certain deer species appears to have been the primary food and clothing source that enabled them to withstand the cold.

Advanced Planning 
Researchers also discovered that ancient civilizations planned for and promulgated policies - including cross-breeding animals to make them drought-tolerant and moving their agricultural heartlands to more verdant areas - to withstand a hundred-year drought. They were able to help their neighboring former enemies to prevent the worst of a famine. Still, we cannot know exactly how prehistoric and ancient humans persevered.
Several researchers think a major key to their survival was that for generations, they survived climate shifts. It had become a part of their lives so they recognized signs of change and prepared to help their communities survive.
By contrast, we have experienced many centuries of fairly stable climate. We not only are out of practice employing resilience to these extremes, but it appears we're devoid of imagination as a society for what we ourselves have wrought and must do to prepare.
Today, climate disruptions definitely impact us. Consider:
" Health: Asthma cases have risen dramatically. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of patients diagnosed with asthma rose by 4.3 million, according to CDC reports. It is a leading cause of school absences across the country.
" Quality of Life: Extreme heat was the leading cause of weather-related deaths - more than 1,200 - in the U.S. between 2004 and 2013. The extraordinary heat wave that killed some 70,000 people in Europe in 2003 should have been a once-in 500-year event. At the current level of global warming, it has become a once-in-40-year event.
" Housing: Hurricane Irma destroyed one-of-every four homes in parts of Florida while over half of residential and commercial properties in the Houston metro are now considered at "High" or "Moderate" risk of flooding.
Like those ancient peoples, we have the perfect storm of events. They grappled with earthquakes, climate disruption and, consequently, invading neighbors. We confront earthquakes, deep societal inequities and pressing issues of a changing climate.
So, here is where we are at in terms of adapting to climate change. The assessment reflects a study of 100 Adaptation projects and leaders that I conducted with Dr. Susanne Moser and other researchers in 2017, funded by the Kresge Foundation The positive view:
Some adaptation practices are underway and climate impacts are driving them. New actors and networks have energized the adaptation field, including such city networks as the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and 100 Resilient Cities. Adaptation also improves in certain areas: the adaptation knowledge base and increasingly available tools supporting adaptation. In addition, science and practice work together more frequently as leaders experiment with adaptation. The negative view:
Driven largely by crises, the adaptation field is not creating a unifying vision/creative imagination for a future where people adapt and thrive. Adaptation remains mostly reactive rather than proactive. A sense of urgency is missing, and too many adaptation efforts are stalled at the planning stage. The prevailing emphasis on urban adaptation leaves small towns and rural areas behind and neglects important interdependencies between cities and surrounding areas. And while awareness grows as to the disproportionate impact of climate change on the most vulnerable-and the need for equitable solutions-few adaptation actors grasp how to incorporate equity into their work. The future:
To avoid becoming the culture that fails, even in comparison with than prehistorical and ancient civilizations that survived climatic changes, we must accelerate mitigation and adaptation efforts significantly while building social cohesion and equity. This will close the yawning chasm through which we could fall. Today, the planet's average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, and models predict it may rise by tens of degrees - indeed, 30 degrees Fahrenheit in some places - by century's end.

We must strive to prevent, minimize, and alleviate climate change threats to human well-being and to the natural and built systems on which humans depend. It will prove exciting to fulfill this mission because by doing so, we create fresh opportunities to address the causes and consequences of climate change in ways that solve related social, environmental and economic problems.
But to achieve this, we must expand the number and type of leaders involved in helping communities adapt. Increase our capacity and tools of persuasion to make adaptation work more impactful. Ensure that the funds spent and policies enacted are in line with achieving this mission.


Egyptologists who study that empire's collapse caution that when leadership "has feet of clay and isn't willing to take the challenge on in an innovative way, then often the challenge will overcome them."Today in our democracy, that leadership lies with all of us. We must create transformative change. And be brave and uncomfortable in embracing the challenges of both social inequity and climate uncertainty as we do so.


Pray that in the timelines of geology, climate and human history, we can pivot from a relatively stable climate to one that mirrors nothing humans have experienced historically. Our survival in the new era of climate change depends on it.


Joyce E. Coffee, president of Climate Resilience Consulting and a Senior Sustainability Fellow at the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) is recognized globally for thought leadership in climate adaptation and strategies for improving corporate and government resilience.

Joyce Coffee headshot

Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is founder and President of Climate Resilience Consulting. She is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 25 years of domestic and international experience in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors implementing resilience and sustainability strategies, management systems, performance measurement, partnerships, benchmarking and reporting.

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