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It's Time To Adapt To Climate Change, Scientists Say

BOSTON — February 2, 2009 — In the United States, most of the debate over climate change is focused on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But some environmentalists say we're talking too much about how to prevent our climate from changing — and not enough about how to adapt to change that's already here.

Robert Repetto spends a lot of time thinking about how different our climate will be in a few years. He's a retired environmental economist from Yale University who says there's already so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere that the consequences are inevitable.

ROBERT REPETTO: Warmer waters are going to lead to more red tide. Snows are melting earlier and faster, which means some of our rivers are going to experience more flooding. In the summer, there's going to be more smog, more mosquitoes.

That bug-filled picture is just a sampling of what's to come. Scientists find it difficult to predict exactly how the climate will change.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists projects that fishing grounds off Cape Cod could disappear as ocean temperatures rise. Fruit crops in the Massachusetts that need long chills to grow, such as apples, cranberries, and blueberries, could stop producing as winters get warmer. And New England ski resorts may not get enough snow.

Repetto says public and private groups need to adapt to climate change rather than just work on stopping or slowing it.

REPETTO: We need to anticipate what might happen and take preventive measures, and we're not doing that.

Boston, for example, could be looking at more than a two-foot rise in its sea level by the end of the century. Hubert Murray is an urban planner who thinks the city should be doing a lot more to prepare for future flooding.

Looking out on Boston's inner harbor on a calm day, Murray predicts the water won't always be this tranquil.

HUBERT MURRAY: With a two-foot rise what you're going to see is a Venetian scene in downtown Boston.

By that he means Venice, which floods much more frequently than it used to because of rising seas.

MURRAY: You're going to see parts of Chinatown underwater, you're going to see the frontage around Rowes Wharf and Long Wharf underwater, you're probably going to see major bits of the North End underwater.

Murray says we should learn from other countries that have experience with flooding.

MURRAY: What we're going to have to do is what the Dutch have done for themselves, is we're going to have to raise the sea walls, look at the ground floors of all our buildings to see what's vulnerable, and it's going to be a painstaking and meticulous process.

SHARLENE LEURIG: From what we've seen across the country, hardly anyone is doing anything of significance on climate adaptation.

That's Sharlene Leurig of CERES, a nonprofit group in Cambridge that's pushing companies and government to factor climate change into all their planning. That means updating flood maps, changing building codes, and rewriting zoning rules.

LEURIG: In some ways it's nuts and bolts kinds of stuff. It's not always going to be sexy. It might just be about extra-reinforced shingles on your roof.

It might also be about using the natural landscape to defend against extreme weather. That's what one national environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, is doing with many of its regional projects.

Here's an example: Imagine a Nor'easter that barrels into the East Coast and floods local rivers. If riverside communities are unprotected, they could be destroyed. So the Nature Conservancy is planning to restore flood plain forests on the Connecticut River, which runs 400 miles from northern New Hampshire to Long Island Sound.

Kim Lutz, who directs the project, says these forests act like a protective wall against storms.

KIM LUTZ: Flood plain systems provide that first line of defense. They not only absorb a lot of water, but they can absorb the power of that water.

Some of these projects are typical conservation efforts that have been happening for years. But Lutz says the Nature Conservancy now realizes these programs can also help communities adapt to global warming.

LUTZ: I suppose you could say we're doing a lot of the same things but with a climate change twist to them.

That kind of two-in-one project can't come soon enough for Robert Repetto, the environmental economist from Yale.

REPETTO: We have no time to waste, and we have a long way to go.

So while government officials continue to hammer out plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Repetto is also urging them to adapt to the wetter, warmer weather that's already here.

This program aired on February 2, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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