It's time to adapt to unstoppable global warming, scientists say

Storm damage in Breezy Point, NY
In this 2012 file photo, a lineman works to repair storm damage to a utility pole in Breezy Point, NY. John Makely

Even if the world's 7 billion people magically stop burning fossil fuels and chopping down forests today, the greenhouse gases already emitted to the atmosphere will warm the planet by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century, according to scientists who are urging a focused scientific effort to help humanity adapt to the changing climate.

And reality shows no sign of such a magic reduction in emissions. The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached another new high in 2012, the World Meteorological Association announced Wednesday. In fact, concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most abundant planet warming gas, grew faster last year than its average growth rate of the past decade.

"The fact is, we are not making a lot of progress in reducing emissions," Richard Moss, a senior scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Joint Global Change Research Institute at the University of Maryland, told NBC News. "So it seems like we really do need to face up to the fact that there is change that we can no longer avoid and we have to figure out how to manage."

Moss is the lead author of an article in Thursday's issue of Science calling for the development of a field of climate science that provides relevant, tangible information to decision makers who are tasked to protect people and cities increasingly battered by extreme weather, flooded by rising seas, and nourished with food grown on drought-prone lands. 

Science which focuses on adapting to climate change — rather than just preventing it — is nothing new. It's the need for more information that field of science can yield that's increasingly vital. Superstorm Sandy and the onslaught of similar catastrophic events bear the fingerprint of climate change. Growing evidence that more of the same is on the way brings a new urgency for information that people can actually use to prepare, survive, and even thrive on a changing planet, Moss explained.

Hope lost?
The push for adaptation science also represents a shift in climate policy circles away from an agenda focused solely on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the impact of climate change, according to Adam Fenech, a climate scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada who has studied adaptation science for about 15 years. He did not contribute to the article in Science.

For most of this time, "people wouldn't even consider adaptation. It was a bad word. You couldn't bring it up," he told NBC News. "But now it has been accepted probably because people have either abandoned completely or abandoned faith in the international climate change negotiations."

In addition, Fenech said, people are coming to grips with the fact that the world is committed to a certain degree of climate change no matter what is done to cut emissions. The thinking goes "we're going to have to live with it anyway," he explained. "And that's adaptation."

The Science article does not advocate abandoning mitigation efforts, but rather elucidates the need for adaptation, noted Joe Casola, director of the science and impacts program at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental think tank in Arlington, Va. "I think that both of them are going to be required," he told NBC News.

"The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation we'll need," added Casola, who was not involved with the Science article. "If we were to do no mitigation, then our adaptation investments now are probably going to be made worthless or very, very limited as we have a lot of changes to deal with in the climate system."

Institute of adaptation
Key to making adaptation work is an acknowledgement that climate is just one factor planners are forced to wrestle with as they make decisions, noted Moss, whose lab is funded by the Department of Energy.

For example, planners who are considering where to build and how to fund a storm water management system that can handle deluges unlike any of the past 100 years, "are going to be concerned that their taxpayers don't want to pay too much money for it (and) their city council wants to make sure that certain economic interests are protected. … You need to put this in the context of that decision."

Time scales are another thing the field needs to consider, noted Casola. An electric utility, for example, may understand that coastal flooding could affect its power lines but "it is probably not feasible for them to rip up all their infrastructure tomorrow and try to replace it," he said. Rather the utility needs a plan of things it can do now to improve resilience and improvements to phase in over the next few decades.

To implement this new breed of what the authors call "relevant adaptation science," the article proposes a formalized "national institute on climate preparedness" loosely modeled on the National Institutes of Health with basic research carried out largely at universities around the country that is driven by a mandate to address a list of adaptation priorities. 

For the NIH this has led, for example, to the establishment of the National Cancer Institute. The climate side could, for example, see a special institute emerge on adapting transportation and infrastructure given the hit these services take from extreme weather events such as supercharged hurricanes.

"But at some point there may well be some kind of problem that crops up related to agriculture or extended drought," Moss said. "As these things come up and as people mobilize to address them, it seems like it might be possible at that point you'd add an institute that would combine basic science and application to try to address it."

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website