The climate catastrophe is not for sensitive minds. You have to be able to endure the reporting alone, more precisely: the oscillation between horror, horror and despair associated with it. How nice it would be if there were another way! And that’s why this newsletter is an experiment: let’s try optimism. We make it!
My colleague Benjamin von Brackel, for example, looked at the arguments of climate protection activists of the “last generation” and found that researchers now consider it unlikely that the world will actually warm by a catastrophic four or five degrees. The attitude of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could also be described as optimistic: In its most recent partial report, it also pointed out opportunities and perspectives. The rudder could still be turned around. Even the American journalist David Wallace-Wells, who a few years ago shrillly warned of the “uninhabitable earth”, is now rowing back: it might not be that bad (only almost), he wrote in New York Times Magazine.
But the greatest optimist has last given by the TV presenter Markus Lanz. In a memorable broadcast, he said that one shouldn’t look so black. “Our entire human history is a history of adaptation,” says Lanz. “What has made us successful as a species is that we have adapted, over and over again.” Israel, for example, has managed to farm a barren, arid land. The state is now even exporting water. We make it!
There has actually been an adjustment. Especially biological
This optimism is truly admirable. Because of course the example is weird. Those who cultivate barren land may improve their livelihoods, but they do not react to the fact that their previous livelihood is collapsing. This means that it may adapt to adverse climatic conditions, but not to climate change. And certainly not one with the speed of the one that has now begun. No matter how remarkable engineering achievements mankind may have made, may have built dams and constructed air conditioning systems, they have never had to deal with such rapid changes.
Nevertheless, Lanz is right about one thing: Anyone who looks at human history also sees adaptation – albeit primarily biological. To put it bluntly, without a changing climate, pre-humans might have stayed perched on their branches for all eternity. Why not? But as the climate cooled ten to five million years ago, forests shrank and copse spread, food became scarcer. Pre-humans had to search, so those who could cover longer distances were more likely to survive – and walking on two legs is good for this, because it saves energy than walking with an ankle, such as that used by gorillas. The evolutionary trend was to walk upright. So we would have done that before.
Later, humans proved that they can biologically adapt to different climatic conditions. So people live near the North Pole as well as at the equator. In cooler latitudes they tended to be bulkier, in warmer latitudes the figures remained slimmer; this is how evolution optimized the heat balance.
So humans are perfectly capable of adapting. But is that really reason for optimism? Rather not. Because looking back, we like to see the result, the adapted species. But evolution takes generations. It does not mean that individuals conform. Evolution means: What doesn’t fit by chance dies.
What caused climate change? demise and migration
Even the way humanity has dealt with short-term climate fluctuations is not exactly encouraging. Regional climate variations have, for example helped decide where certain prehuman species could live. They also helped make Homo sapiens could leave Africa. But that was not a linear process, countless people died. And above all, it shows how dependent man was on the climate, adaptation or not.
But what about adaptation through technology? That is hard to say. There is now a whole jumble of studies on how later human civilizations dealt with climate change. The big picture is that over the long term, people sometimes learned to cope with new conditions. But they were usually overwhelmed by the change. They often failed the stress test, fled to other parts of the world, and civilizations collapsed. Years ago, the Swiss climatologist Heinz Wanner examined the 12,000-year dependence of humans on the climate in a book. At the end he summarized the consequences of climate change – under the title “Decline or Migration”.
But wait – this newsletter should end with optimism. It’s also true: In the past millennia, technology and culture have made people less and less dependent on the climate. He has become increasingly effective at gathering food. And a little optimism never hurts. In all honesty, however, it should be clear: What is coming is a challenge for which there is no blueprint in human history. We can do it? Let’s hope so.
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