Tom Goldsmith: We should not merely ‘adapt’ to climate change

Global catastrophe is not something where we should just ‘face the music and dance.’

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, in Independence, Mo. A United Nations report released on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 says humans are making Earth a broken and increasingly unlivable planet through climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. So the world must make dramatic changes to society, economics and daily life.

As “moderate” Democrats pretend to be fiscally responsible in their opposition to President Biden’s proposed $36 billion budget to combat climate change, I wonder what it means to act responsibly these days. It ought to reflect a good faith effort to save the planet.

Failing to invest in a sustainable planet indicates that we have abandoned their responsibilities as caretakers of the earth. They seem content merely to adapt. This raises the question: Is adapting to climate change a responsible or even virtuous quality when life hangs in the balance? Yet, adapting can also have a good spin, suggesting a gritty quality in a person’s character. After all, who admires the person who needs coddling when challenged by disaster? Starting in childhood we’re taught to have a “good attitude” and are chastised if we complain.

In sustaining a life-changing injury or facing new financial hardships, we admire and try to emulate those who serve as intrepid models. When we feel alone in our grief immediately following the death of a loved one, counselors offer tools to help us move to a “new normal.” We’re urged to show others the kind of stuff we’re made of. It’s expected, and we surely would prefer displaying strength of character to grumbling about our misfortunes.

In his 1936 hit song, “Face the Music and Dance,” Irving Berlin supports the spirit of adapting. He recommends resisting life’s inevitable disasters by dancing, even in the face of danger. The song opens with the ominous line: “There’s trouble ahead,” but then urges us to face the music and dance. The song, in other words, becomes a metaphor for adapting, and all that’s required for getting to a new normal is to “hum a different tune.” In the face of oncoming trouble, channel your inner Fred or Ginger and glide gracefully into a different reality. No one wants to face the music and sulk.

When it comes to climate change, however, is adapting really the best call? Doesn’t adapting imply a willingness to capitulate to corporations fully invested in keeping the status quo? By adapting, we negate technologies and policies already in place that reduce carbon footprints and increase sustainability. A habitable planet does not rely on speculative new technologies, but simply an accelerated implementation of what already exists. Can the price be too great?

We must change the national conversation about climate change. Instead of meekly accepting some inevitably altered earth, we need to use our current and developing knowledge of how to draw down our carbon output. In lieu of adapting, a euphemism for complacency, we are ready now to face the music with alternative energy sources, greater sustainability in building materials, land use management to protect forests and wetlands, eliminating HFC’s in refrigeration, and a savvy approach to food systems, knowing that what we eat correlates to what we release into the atmosphere.

Our negligence in allowing climate catastrophe to reach its current level of devastation says more about our hubris than our incompetence. We opt for comfortable lifestyles, holding the illusion that feeble efforts at adapting will buy enough time to forego making the needed concessions in our everyday lives.

Meanwhile, as we teeter precariously on the tipping point of survival, our elected officials are elevating highways and bridges and planting shade trees for cows. Supplying support groups for children who lost their homes in wildfires may appear well-meaning, but it forsakes the substantive issues that deal with the conflagration in the first place. And exactly how high do they plan to build those sea walls?

It is time we confront climate issues directly. Since climate catastrophes in 2020 alone cost us more than $20 billion in damages, how much convincing do we need? Short-term solutions to climate change border on the absurd. After many decades of accumulated violence, the earth has convulsed as would any living organism. It has a score to settle. We cannot face the music in a tone-deaf manner. The world is melting, flooding and on fire. Care to dance?

Mitigating global warming lies within our grasp but it won’t be achieved by adapting. A viable future will be a test of our character. No one disputes there’s trouble ahead, but if we only intend to adapt, we will dance blithely towards our own extinction. Conversely, if we address the crisis head on, generations to come will honor our legacy. What is the stuff we’re made of? When will we begin acting responsibly?

Tom Goldsmith Senior Minister First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

Tom Goldsmith is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City