Yes. This is really happening. Things right now are not how things used to be.The core concept here is “stationarity.” Formally, that’s the idea that the probability of an event happening in a given time doesn’t itself change over time. Less formally, it means that data on how often something used to happen can tell you how likely it is to happen again. When you hear about 100-year storms or once-in-a-lifetime heat waves, those frequency estimates assume stationarity. But when it comes to climate, researchers no longer expect it—not in the watery stuff like rain and floods, nor the fiery stuff like, er, fires. Increasingly, the scientists who study emerging infectious diseases, crop survival, air pollution, sea level rise, and extreme heat all warn that past performance may no longer be indicative of future results.Seattle’s construction of clean-air shelters is an example of planning for the future with past performance in mind. The city saw what happened last summer and is acting accordingly. In a way, the same goes for the entire system of Mississippi River levees, constructed in response to more than a century of river dynamics and the needs of transport on the water. Both are examples of adaptation, a technological remaking of the built environment that humans undertake after making specific assumptions about the future. “But the question is, what are you adapting to? What is normal? Normal keeps changing,” Kopp says. “If you want to even just do the adaptation correctly, you have to recognize that you’re adapting to a baseline that’s changing. And it’s not just a step change. Changes will keep happening.”It’s not a “new normal,” then. If anything, it’s a “new abnormal.” Any one of the half-dozen weirdo disaster weather scenarios this summer might stand out. But all of them at once? Perhaps that’s just the new face of summer. “I also saw some of the same sentiment expressed last summer. And I forget what they were now—a whole bunch of events like this, storms, floods, heat waves,” says Frances Moore, an environmental scientist at UC Davis who earlier this year published a paper on how quickly people forget what’s normal about changes in weather patterns. Broadly, the effect is called “shifting baseline syndrome,” and it’s what happens when gradual, long-term change meets the dumb, immediately gratifiable human brain. “The shifting baselines come in as we keep seeing these strange summers again and again and again,” Moore says. “We start to think, even if each individual event is unusual, having a set of events around the world, all unusual, itself becomes normalized.”A shifting baseline can actually be good news for inspiring adaptation, for doing things that help keep people safe in a changed world. After a catastrophic heat wave in 2003, France retrained its emergency personnel and set up systems in case it ever happened again. In June, it did. And France was, roughly, ready. The same goes for Seattle’s clean-air shelters, even if on paper they sound like the kind of dystopian sci-fi where everyone who lives under the dome gets . But good adaptation by itself also requires, in a sense, acceptance. “We talk about adaptation as a great thing. It’s better than nothing, but it’s also a second-best solution,” Moore says. “Ideally what we would be doing is solving this collective-action problem, but the city of Seattle alone can’t do that.”Adaptation is better than not adapting, whether you can get your feet underneath you while the baseline shifts. But mitigation—getting carbon out of the economy—is also, in a sense, adaptation. It attempts to preserve stationarity, and helps ensure all the planning isn’t for nothing. Watching crazy weather unfold around the world this summer so that people can be ready for it next summer is only prudent—build more shade, plant more trees, strengthen levees and build better water management strategies. Sure. Let disasters motivate tangible adaptation, even though everyone who bothered to look knew they were coming a decade ago. “But ‘wait to see what climate change does and then react’ was always going to be a losing strategy,” Moore says. “By the time you see events serious enough to make you take measures, you’re too late to avoid the impact.”
It’s not too late—not yet, anyway. But the clock is ticking louder and louder. And as this summer—and last summer, and the one before that—show, it ain’t too early, either.
- He cyberstalked girls for years—then they fought back
- One boy’s dream vacation to see construction equipment
- Notifications are stressing us out. How did we get here ?
- How nine people built an illegal $5 million Airbnb empire
- Everything you want—and need—to know about aliens
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers , running gear (including shoes and socks ), and best headphones .
- 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter