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Top U.S. Science Adviser: ‘We Cannot Stop Climate Change ... We Need to be Prepared’

“No matter what we do ... we cannot stop climate change in its tracks,” says John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser. “It’s already having significant impacts. Those impacts will grow, and we need to be prepared for that.”

Holdren says it’s no longer realistic to focus on mitigating the causes of climate change – efforts such as limiting carbon emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.

He and many others say society must now also emphasize the importance of only adapting to the new normal that includes droughts, floods and powerful storms.

John Holdren, President Obama's science adviser

“People have realized that we need an immense amount of both mitigation and adaption, preparedness and resilience,” he said in a climate change conference of foreign ministers in Anchorage last summer.

Craig Fleener, who advises Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on climate policy, agrees.

“That is a very high priority of ours: To find a way to adapt to the climate change – climate impacts that we’re experiencing,” he said.

Fleener welcomes the federal government’s emphasis on adaptation and resilience. But he says the feds must adapt emergency-response policies to handle the slowly unfolding disaster of climate change under way in the Arctic.

Craig Fleener, Arctic policy adviser for Alaska Gov. Bill Walker

“You’ve got loss of life, loss of property, and cultural catastrophe taking place,” he said.

Holdren agrees more must be done. He says it’s only been a few years since governments included adaptation and resilience into their climate-change response plans. He says even environmental groups, which have long been reluctant to embrace adaptation, now also are agreeing it’s needed.

“Ten, 15 years ago, there was a fair amount of opposition to thinking about adaption, resilience and preparedness, out of fear that it would distract attention from the overarching importance of mitigation,” he said.

That’s true, says Elisabeth Dabney, the executive director of Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center. But she says adaptation policies for the Arctic must address the well-being of mainly indigenous peoples who live in areas directly impacted by climate change.

“… To mitigate its effect on coastal communities, Interior communities; how it deals with water, subsistence and traditional ways of life.”

Dabney says the center’s now working on a policy that would formally outline its position on adaptation.

Editor's note: this story has been updated and revised for posting online.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.