It isn’t the first time that humans have been forced to adapt to a changing climate. On countless occasions throughout history we have innovated our culture or, failing that, migrated our communities in the face of shifting weather patterns. Today, global warming-induced sea level rise is displacing low-lying coastal and island populations such as the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea. As recently the 17th century though the threat was a near polar opposite; high-altitude villages in the Swiss Alps were being destroyed by the invading glaciers of a ‘Little Ice Age’. If we trace this trend further back we find that adaptation is not only a regular theme throughout human history, but also a main driver of the evolution of our species. When a long-term climate shift transformed our ancestors’ forested homeland to grassland three million years ago, they adapted. They climbed down from the trees and learned how to walk.
Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea
Granted, the innovation needed for humanity to successfully adapt this time around may not be quite on par with apes learning to walk. It’s close though, because the challenge of adaptation has grown in direct proportion to the growth of our species; mainly our ten digit population and our increasingly complex and energy-intensive modern society. And the challenge today is unique because humanity is now a primary driver of the changes that we must in turn adapt to.
Humans are probably the most adaptable species on earth and climate change will push us to our limits. To adapt we'll have to pull off a complete cultural revolution - a drastic shift in our values, technology, and social structures to bring humanity back within the limits of our living planet. We've adapted before - can we adapt again? Better yet, can we turn this global challenge into a global opportunity? To learn how communities on the front lines of climate change are harnessing adaptation for good, check out the related article: Can a community harness climate change for positive change?
- Daimen Hardie
 Jonathan Cowie (2007). Climate change: biological and human aspects. Cambridge University Press. (pp. 164).