Facing climate change: Collapse or adaptation? Biologist says humans can adjust to warmer world

Amy Seidl is a lecturer in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark/VTDigger

Amy Seidl is a lecturer in the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont. Photo by Audrey Clark/VTDigger

Amy Seidl is a lecturer in the environmental program at the University of Vermont and the author of two books, “Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World” and “Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in an Age of Warming.” She received her master’s degree in entomology from Colorado State University and her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Vermont. She is working on a new book about the range of responses to climate adaptation, from neo-primitivism to technological optimism. Audrey Clark, a freelance environmental reporter for VTDigger, interviewed Seidl for the “Facing climate change” series.

VTD: People are typically doom and gloom about climate change and often feel immobilized. Can you talk about your perspective on adaptation?

ALS: Well, the perspective really is an evolution of perspective. My first book, “Early Spring,” was about recording signals of climate change in our geography, in our landscape, in the quotidian nature of our lives — the everyday occurrences where we can see this change unfolding. Yet, as I came to the end of that project, I was left and I knew I was leaving my reader with, so what next? Here are the signals. The phenomenon’s unfolding. All evidence points to the continuation of climate change for a really long time.

And so I started to really read and dig into this concept of adaptation. And as an ecologist and evolutionary biologist I started first with how biological systems automatically — because they are evolving systems or they have inherent levels of plasticity, phenotypic plasticity — were exhibiting this adaptive quality and capacity. And I was blown away by the amount of literature that was already building that supported either selective process or plastic response — but in both cases an evolutionary reaction to changing conditions.

So in my research for “Finding Higher Ground,” I started to think not only about biological systems adapting as a kind of precedent, but how human cultures have adapted to those changes, too, over time. And I thought perhaps the way we should start to frame climate change for us is how do we adapt to this phenomenon that’s unfolding.

I recognize that adaptation sort of releases us from a kind of blame. The industrial revolution took place, we had good reason for it; it was technological, it relied less on human labor, it promised a new kind of leisure — some of the same economic development goals we still have today. And we pursued it unaware of what would be triggered in time.

VTD: Tell me about one of these signals or indicators that illustrate that climate change is happening in Vermont.

ALS: Data that actually come from Vermont is when sugaring season starts and ends. It’s not so much based on volume of sap because technologies are being applied all the time to increase that volume. But if you just look at — and we have lots of really long-term data, some of it coming from very interesting sources, like people marking on the inside of their sugar shacks the date when sugaring began or when the first boil was, it’s coming about 11 days early and being compressed in length by seven days.

VTD: Tell me about adaptation and particularly — your book “Finding Higher Ground” focuses on Vermont’s ways of adapting to climate change — tell me about things that Vermonters are doing to adapt.
Early Spring seidl

ALS: So in that book I make the case that biological and cultural adaption are occurring and then I say let’s look at this pragmatically because when cultures are beset by radically changing conditions they start to change their infrastructure, they change their lifestyles, their ways of being, and we’ve seen that, you know, historically.

There’s some — I won’t say mythology, that’s too strong a critique — but there’s some literature out there that would have us believe there’ll be collapse and not adaptation. So I just want to say that part of getting into the messy pragmatic details of what it looks like to fashion and reshape culture in concert with these changing conditions is because others might have us believe that cultures just collapse when conditions change so radically. And I think there’s lots of evidence that that doesn’t happen, that they actually re-identify and redesign themselves.
finding higher ground amy seid;
To start, we can just look at farming and food production and cultivation. Many of us have heard the story of rice growing in Vermont. It started with a Japanese couple who was really interested in growing rice in southern Vermont.

As they experimented over a long period of time with different subspecies of rice they found there was one that had possibilities. Simultaneous to their interest in growing rice our hydrologic cycles were changing. And the prediction for the Northeast is to see 30 percent more precipitation, most of it coming in deluge events where you have more than two inches of rain falling in 48 hours. So those individuals started thinking about, well what grows well in damp conditions, even monsoonal conditions. What grows well in monsoonal conditions on hillsides? Because that is the nature of Vermont; it will increasingly be monsoonal. So Ben Falk is the person I write about in that chapter. He talks about the horticultural research begun by this couple in Westminster and how he’s now cultivating rice given how climate change is unfolding on the Vermont landscape.

When I was writing that chapter, we had a very, very wet spring and farmers were trying to plant corn. It took them five or seven times of planting to get corn to take — because it kept rotting in the soil it was just so wet.

Alternatively, what we find in Ben Falk’s work is that when we have these deluge events, Hurricane Irene as an example where 7 inches of rain fell in 36 hours on Ben’s farm, the rain is captured in rice paddies and the rice thrives.

We might think that this kind of change is anathema, like, we don’t grow rice, we grow corn and apples and grapes and cows on corn and cows on grass. It’s not who we are, we don’t identify with a rice agriculture. And yet since that time, we see large new rice fields going in. In Ferrisburgh, now they have a USDA grant to look at rice in all of these different conditions around the state. And you can see that the experimentation with this new foodstuff is a kind of cultural adaptation. It’s right for the climate, perhaps, it’s horticulturally advancing and that will happen simultaneously and people are seeing some success with it.

Now, there’s risk in all of this, too. Because the climate is not just — we don’t just have a signal of change, like more precipitation, we have multiple and varying signals, with a lot of noise. And that noise, of course, is the variability that comes with any climate system and is exacerbated with climate change. So adaptations will need to wrestle and be innovated in light of both signals of change and increasing variability.

 So we’re not living our current emissions. These emissions will be lived by people 30 years from now. And even if we were to apply all that we could to arrest emissions today, climate models show that the phenomenon will be with us until the next millennium.

I think it’s very hard for people to think about where we’re headed. We’ve seen approximately 1 degree Celsius increase. Given various delays and time lags in the climate system, this temperature increase is reflective of emissions that were created 30 years ago. So we’re not living our current emissions. These emissions will be lived by people 30 years from now. And even if we were to apply all that we could to arrest emissions today, climate models show that the phenomenon will be with us until the next millennium. You know, a thousand years. This is very hard for people — it’s hard for me to get my head around — but if we feel that the science is based on good data, it describes a very different future than the one we’ve been living in. And there are ways to test how good these models are by back-casting to see how well they could predict what we’ve already experienced, and they’re pretty good that way.

I just want to be clear that I am not advocating adaptation alone. I do think we have very little choice but to adapt yet I do not think moving on adaptation initiatives needs to compete with carbon mitigation. Both are necessary. This is a longstanding phenomenon, at the very least another generation, but more likely for many more generations than we can count.

VTD: So what can we do? What are the ways that we can expect to have to adapt in the next, say, 100 years?

ALS: What can we do? We can support a process where we take a really deliberate, close look at our infrastructure and say what failed, what isn’t resilient, what needs to be changed so it can withstand these conditions. That is the process that builds adaptive capacity.

For instance, how do we keep our floodplain agriculture from being destroyed? One is to change policy around floodplain restoration. That 100-foot boundary from waterways is an adaptive strategy in agriculture, in sedimentation control, for eutrophication, for clean water issues, all of which will be exacerbated with climate change. That’s an innovation. That’s an adaptation strategy.

VTD: The 100-foot boundary — what are you referring to?

ALS: Take any waterway, the Winooski, the Mad River, and put 100 feet from the top of that bank away from the river in vegetated riparian landscape. Now some people are offering, well, that landscape could still be agricultural, i.e., it could be food forest landscape. Some people are offering it should be planted in native, riparian species, like a floodplain forest.

What we know is that if we don’t have good soil structure that’s being bound by deep roots, it washes away. And that’s loss of agricultural land, it’s incredible sediment loading and incredible nitrogen and phosphorus loading. Which, when we looked at Lake Champlain after these events, both Irene and the spring storms, we saw 50 percent of the annual phosphorus load deposited into the lake in just one week. So again, the adaptation planning would keep that from happening, finding ways to absorb all that precipitation. Just imagine how much more water those buffers could absorb and all that soil that would not erode in the state the next time we see 2 inches of rain in 48 hours.

One of the things that Gov. Peter Shumlin has us thinking about with his state Resilience Plan is that adaptation doesn’t have to start from the bottom up. A lot of these adaptation strategies are already in the pipeline for other reasons like best management practices, or long-range investment strategies. For instance, people are really thinking about renewable energy from a mitigative standpoint but clean, decentralized power is adaptive too. So, it is great when we can promote strategies that are both mitigative and adaptive at the same time. Biomass, for instance, falls into that camp. Other agricultural technologies like no-till or a kind of plowing where you’re actually increasing the sequestering capacity of pasturelands, these are both mitigative and adaptive. We need to look at techniques and technologies like these, being practiced for reasons other than adapting to climate change and ask how they can increase our resilience as well.

Audrey Clark

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  • rosemarie jackowski

    The mosquito population has increased dramatically this year. How long will it take us to develop immunity or adjust to EEE?

  • Amy,

    More people such as you should sound off, so that Vermonters learn more about other ways to deal with the future.

    You are right about the 30-year lag; the world’s ecosystems adjust slowly to changing inputs, AND the adjustments are not happening at the same rate, AND the adjustments influence each other, AND the weather, AND, eventually, the climate. An ideal subject for chaos theory.

    And there is, as you say, little we can do to influence it, because it will all play out over a thousand years or more.

    And that is why TEACHING adaptation to change in schools, learning it, and applying it, is so important going forward.

    For example: To stem runoffs of rainfall to rivers, it would be prudent to build catch basins, so the water can be fed to the rivers at a slow/measured pace and thereby prevent flooding of flood plains.

    These catch basins could be equipped with low-head hydro turbines to generate clean renewable energy at the same time.

    Nothing new here. In Asia, hillside rice paddies have used such catch basins for several thousand years, AND grow rice at the same time.

    Without this set-up, the mountain topsoil would have washed away in a few years, as happened in Vermont during to clear-cutting era in the 1800s.

    If greed and self-seeking remains at the top of the list, all bets are off.

  • It would be interesting to read more about the emerging field of study in climate adaptation. There aren’t many higher ed programs focusing in this area quite yet. Columbia University’s Climate & Society MPA started up less than ten years ago. More recently, North Carolina State University is offering a Professional Science Master’s. Both are excellent.(Full disclosure: I’m attending NCSU’s program.)

    Columbia’s program: http://climatesociety.ei.columbia.edu/
    NC State’s prgram: http://climate-psm.meas.ncsu.edu/

  • I see it as adaptation in one of two or a combination of two ways: purposeful adaptation where we take deliberate action, or natural adaptation where those best suited to survival continue on and the rest … die.

    Purposeful adaptation takes a willingness to look at the facts on the ground: the results of billions and billions of humans engaging in human activity is having huge repercussions on our only source of food, water, air and shelter (aka our physical environment), and today’s focus is on the part we refer to as global warming/climate change (yes – the same side of the same coin in our modern world).

    Global warming/climate change is about the climate – it creates the conditions for weather that we feel on a localized basis. It makes no sense to discuss adaptation in Vermont without bringing in the rest of the climate affected world. For example we may be able to grow rice, but what will be the effect on Vermont if, as expected, hotter drier summers in the US west and mid-west reduce the output of our “bread basket” farming regions?

    Are we going to see large scale population movement to a weather-wise friendlier area that will put a squeeze on the available crop lands? Are we going to see our water resources sapped for shipment out of state, and if so what would that mean to those rice paddies?

    If the world ended at the state borders we could adapt to what the scientific community’s consensus tells us is coming regarding our changing climate and associated weather patterns. But in the case of global climate Vermont-centric doesn’t mean much.

    In the end our adaptations must be more than individual or even local or state level – our adaptations have to be about the human race across the globe. No one individual, community or state is responsible for what is occurring in our physical environment. It has taken the activities of billions and billions of people.

  • Anthony Hobley

    It is very dangerous to talk about adaptation without carefully defining what level of global average temperature rise we are talking about or making clear there are very likely limits. The headline to this article seems to down play the severity of the problem of climate change sugggesting that we can just adapt. Amy makes clear in her answers it is both mitigation and adaptation but does not seem to make clear why. We are already committed to at least 2 degrees of warming if we act now to mitigate. If we do not act decisively now it looks like we are on a pathway to somewhere between 3.6 and 5.8 degrees of warming. Sure we can adapt to 1 degree, we already are. Two degrees we can probably adapt to, 3 degrees maybe. But what about 4,5,6 or even higher? Assuming at above 2 degrees we do not set off a whole set of feedback affects which cause climate cxhange to spiral away out of control. This piece is right we are committed to a certain degree of warming and we will have to adapt to that. But if we do not also mitigate we may get a lot more warming and it is far from certain we could adapt to much higher levels. Certainly our current civilisation which is very attuned to the current climate could not. I fail to see how we could adapt to a climate which has not been re-stabilised albeit at a higher temperature. We need to stabilise the climate so we know what we are adapting too. I doubt we can adapt for long to a climate which is not stable and is getting ever warmer.

  • Greg Lapworth

    Thank you Amy for your most rational description of what is happening and will happen. Finally a non-doomsayer!!!
    Yes humans will adapt as they have before. We have a very good future to look forward to. The one constant in life is change.
    I look forward to the new book you are working on.
    We will adapt and prosper.

  • Stephen Beck

    I have no doubt that human’s will be able to adapt – we are crafty enough and actually have gotten us into this mess. I am more concerned about the rest of the planet.

  • Paul Denton

    It’s really fascinating, and encouraging, to see science rather than ideology or hysteria in a discussion of this problem.

  • Don Peterson

    Unfortunately, Amy, if Vermont’s climate gets to a point where we can grow rice, a lot of the places in the world where they grow rice now will be trackless deserts. But hey, party on!

  • Throck Morton

    And lets not forget the booming populations of ticks and lyme bacteria. Those are awesome too. And the adaptation is easy. You just cant go in the woods anymore.

  • David Gross

    Great article and dead-on about the need to adapt. But the missing point is “We aren’t adapting, weren’t just talking”. For instance, the riparian buffer issue. There is absolutely NO disagreement that these are essential for water quality, flood control, and support of wildlife. However, the State of Vermont refuses to actually create these buffers, despite having the power to do so and thus reap the immense benefits for its people. They do “support” the actions of private nonprofits and enlightened landowners. Also, the State has done numerous studies that point out that one of our greatest carbon dioxide sources is transportation, but we have no practical public transportation system outside of our largest cities. I am talking about implementing that radically new concept of a “bus route”. I recently listened to a talkshow on VPR and realized if these “experts” are left in charge then Vermont would never have state-wide public transportation because they do not believe in the “Build it and they will come” model. I guarantee you that if these routes were established along our state highways and designed to support commuter users, then they would be packed with content riders and our “parking problems downtown” would evaporate. But, I remain hopeful that someday sanity will rule and that the State will implement policies of “action” rather than “analysis.

  • Sure, no question we as a species will adapt. How violent that will be and how much social disruption is unknown, but it will certainly be worse the longer we put off facing up to the necessary adaptations (like, farming in the west is a dead end). So, we will adapt as a species, but the question is whether our society will adapt in a way that allows it to survive. We have adapted through several periods before – as noted by Jared Diamond’s “Guns Germs and Steel” – but at what cost? What loss? We have other choices – like moving to conservation, efficiency, and renewables. I, for one, do not wish to have massive societal upheaval for my child’s adult life.

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