Paper or Plastic?

Re-posted from our sister CAKE blog:

Dear Adaptation Mavens,

I have finally come to accept that climate change is altering the bog in which I work, but I have no idea what to do about it.  Some people I know are telling me to start measuring how much carbon my bog sequesters and selling offsets to raise money for my work. Others say I should focus on connecting my bog to other bogs at higher latitudes since the ranges of all the species in my bog are certain to shift towards the pole as climate change progresses, but the closest bog is hundreds of miles away! This bog is the only place I’ve ever lived, and I love it more than anything in the world, but it sounds like it may disappear altogether.  I waiver between despair and panic and still don’t know what to do.
Please help!

Nick the Muddled Bog Lemming

Dear NiMBLe,

All too often people respond to climate change as though confronted with a paralyzing decision between two unsatisfying options: should you ignore climate change so as to avoid being thrown into depression, or accept that the world is doomed and abandon hope? This is like a bad remake of the perennial grocery store question. Should you choose a paper bag to help you slow your panicked hyperventilation, or a plastic bag to simply end it all? Neither provides a desirable outcome. The paper bag only provides temporary solace and the plastic bag…well, you won’t suffer further, unless you end up in the fiery pains of hell, but the outcome is generally counter-indicated for long-term success in life.

We are happy to report that just as there are other bag options (Bring your own! Re-use old bags! Stuff your purchases in your pockets!), all is not lost when it comes to climate change. There are productive ways to move forward, and you don’t have to be a wealthy or a super-genius to figure them out. Allow us to introduce a field broadly called “adaptation,” (also known by myriad other names including climate preparedness, resilience-building, resistance-building, climate-aware planning, climate smartification and climate savviness). Whatever you call it, the goal is to include the reality of climate change in everything from your long-term planning to everyday decisions. This might seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be. It can start with a few simple steps.

First, focus on your goal or objectives. What is it that you are aiming to do? You’d be amazed how often people work themselves into a tizzy about things that have nothing to do with their primary goal. If your current goal isn’t to solve all the problems related to climate change, there’s no reason to focus at that broad scale. And repackaging your work in an effort to say you’re doing something about climate change, or to try to make more money doesn’t do anything to protect your real goal from climate change—it may even make it more vulnerable!  From your letter it sounds like you want to protect your beloved bog so that you and its other inhabitants can continue to enjoy your moist and mucky paradise and everything it provides—cranberries, natural water purification services, and the best peat this side of Texas. Great! Keep focusing on that.

OK, you’ve got you goal clearly in your mind? Now determine what the vulnerabilities of this goal are to climate change. How is climate change likely to affect it? Start with what you already know about the current climate where you are and how that affects the bog. Then think about what sorts of climatic changes are likely and how your bog and its inhabitants might respond. What’s the local hydrology--is your bog springfed or rainfed? Will precipitation patterns change? Will there be more or stronger droughts that make the bog dry out? More or stronger rainstorms that flood the bog? Is there competition for the groundwater so it could be overdrawn by other users if precipitation and recharge decrease? Is your region warming? Most are. (No, we are not clairvoyant, that’s why they call it global warming.) This can cause more evaporation and evapotranspiration (a big word meaning moisture loss from plants and the soil around them) which further reduces water levels. Once you exhaust your own knowledge, or even before, go talk to some local experts. In many regions there are groups that provide support with or access to climate data, like the NOAA Regionally Integrated Sciences and Assessments (known as the RISAs, programs located in most regions of the United States, the new NOAA Climate Service (, the Canadian Climate Change Scenarios Network (, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Data Distribution Center ( Better yet, find local climate change scientists and make new friends. Take them out for coffee, get them engaged in your quandary, and show them how great your bog is. See if they’ll partner with you to explore the vulnerability of your system. Keep in mind, though, this is not just about the physical and biological science. Part of how climate change affects things depends on human responses to climate change and its effects, and on how your particular ecosystem functions. You may well know more about these elements than many outside experts. Remember: many aspects of climate change are rife with the same type of uncertainty, variability and surprises that human responses harbor.

So now you may be sliding past the paper bag and reaching for the plastic bag, thinking that we’ve asked a lot of questions and it all sounds very complex. DON’T DO IT! Hang on through the next step. You CAN do this, and once you start you’ll see that it’s not as intimidating as it may sound.

Lay out all of these vulnerabilities, or maybe just start with a few, and think of them as opportunities for creative thinking. See they aren’t so scary. It’s not Climageddon, it’s just a challenge, and you’ve certainly faced many big challenges before—pollution, runaway development, and who knows what else. Climate change is part of our world now, so don’t pretend it isn’t there. Putting your head in the paper bag will not make it go away.

For each of the challenges you’ve identified, brainstorm actions you can take to address them that fit well with your overall goals. Actions can focus on education, management, regulation….anything, really. This is the exciting part. Think creatively. Think crazy. You can evaluate later, now you should explore options including those outside your normal realm of thinking because this challenge is that big. In Switzerland they’re considering covering glaciers in plastic to slow their melting at ski resorts. In Australia they’re putting shade cloth over coral reefs. That may sound crazy but so does global warming when you think about it….we burn fossilized plant matter to make electricity and billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other gases released from these dead plants is building up in the atmosphere creating a blanket that’s heating things up at an amazing rate. Go wild with your new ideas. These are wild times.

Now here’s the tricky part. You actually have to start doing some of these new things. You can’t just talk about them. Look at the situation with renewable energy sources: despite decades or even centuries of demonstrated effectiveness and widespread attention by policy-makers since at least the oil crisis in the 1970s we are still relying mostly on fossil fuels. Clearly the best laid plans so oft go astray when we don’t bother to implement them.

Speaking of plans going astray, it’s a good idea to monitor your exciting new efforts to see if they are doing any good. If they are working, let others know about it. If they are not working, let others know what didn’t work and modify your course of action to try other options that might be more successful.

We know what you are going to say “Oh but this takes so much time!” While we could just shake our finger and say “A stitch in time saves nine,” instead we’ll offer a couple of short cuts. Starting this summer, the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE) can get you tools and information, help you hook up with others doing similar work, and provide a platform to share information and learn from others. It’ll be your online adaptation destination! So set up an account and get ready for CAKE to go live. In the meantime get started. We’ve no time to waste! Grab a reusable cloth bag and get to work.

All our best,
The Adaptation Mavens (Lara Hansen & Jennie Hoffman)