We need adaptations to beat climate change. Fortunately, we might be uniquely suited to come up with them.
What has led modern humans to world domination is not that we’re the biggest, strongest, or fastest animals around. There are plenty of wild beasts that can beat us at that. What we have that they don’t is superior adaptability, creative thinking, and unparalleled teamwork. We use those skills to make tools to overcome any shortfalls in our bodies. We’ve adapted to live just about anywhere that there’s land, colonizing new habitats that other animals couldn’t dream of surviving, let alone thriving, in. We owe that adaptability in large part to our brains, but also our bodies have changed to rise the challenge. Selective pressures over time have led us to walk on two feet and keep some hair on our bodies. They’ve also led to survival strategies. Climate change has been one of the bigger selective pressures, one that we’ve responded well to. As we face this current round of it, one with key differences from the past, we’ll need to utilize those climate change adaptation tools once more to come out ahead.
Humans have faced climate change constantly in our history. The biggest difference this time is that we have largely brought the current climate crisis on ourselves. The distinction isn’t just a way to pass blame, but to acknowledge that this greenhouse gas-fueled climate change is happening much faster than previous climatic shifts. This means we have less time for those physical climate change adaptations in our bodies that evolved slowly over long periods. But we still have those big, strong brain muscles.
Our brains don’t just allow us to think up solutions, they allow us to explain them to other people and work together toward complex common goals. The capacity for culture was a key evolution for humanity, says Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History.
“Our brains are essentially social brains,” he told Scientific American. “We share information, we create and pass on knowledge. That’s the means by which humans are able to adjust to new situations, and it’s what differentiates humans from our earlier ancestors, and our earlier ancestors from primates.”
We’ve also changed our diets as the types of food available around us changed. As omnivores, we can eat just about anything, plants, animals, etc. We’ve combined that with our brain in modern times to do things like create plant-based meat substitutes that taste like the real thing and make bugs taste good (to some of us). A change in diet away from meat agriculture, which is a major contributor to emissions, might be one of the climate change adaptations that helps us stave off the worst potential effects.
We can also learn from each other, passing down information from one generation to the next, and to others in our community. In the digital age, it’s quite easy to share the best solutions around the world in a matter of seconds.
Potts has some good news for us humans in our era of rapid climate change. It’s times like these that, according to theory of variability selection he developed, we made our biggest evolutionary leaps.
“We have markers for various important events in hominid history — the origin of new species, the development of new tools,” Matt Grove, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Liverpool who has worked with Potts to model variability selection, told Scientific American. “If those events line up with what the climate record tells us were the periods of instability, that would seem to support Rick’s theory. And, in general, they do.”
Grove said that new hominid species emerged during these climate disruptions and their climate change adaptations introduced new ways of life and of interacting with their natural environments. Eventually, that led to us, Homo sapiens, ascending to the top of the food chain and taking over the world. Unfortunately, it also led us to some bad changes to our environment, like burning dangerous amounts of fossil fuels that have warmed the planet.
“(A)dapting to climate change is nothing new for humans and may, in fact, be a defining feature of our genus. What is novel is the extent to which our current predicament is self-made, as human energy use over the last approximately one million years precipitated anthropogenic climate change today,” evolutionary and biological anthropologists Anne C. Pisor and James H. Jones wrote in the American Journal of Human Biology.
Adjusting on the Fly
Many human adaptations, including mobility, have come about as a way to maintain access to important resources, Pisor and Jones wrote. We do what we have to in order to be able to eat and keep a comfortable body temperature. In the past, that has ranged from physical climate change adaptations like the ability to sweat to behavioral ones like raising drought-resistant livestock. We also rely on our friends and neighbors to share resources when necessary.
“Both in the past and in the present, individuals’ social networks have been key to ensuring mobility and resource access given climate variability,” Pisor and Jones wrote. “… Further, social network connections are not only sources of food or monetary resources, but also of behavioral adaptations. Network connections transmit innovations for managing the risks posed by climate change.”
Evolutionary and biological anthropologists can use these solutions from the past to predict how people will come up with the climate change adaptations needed to overcome the challenge we now face. Other scientists can as well.
We have come out of previous climate disruptions better for it. This time it’s different, but the way out is largely the same: We have to work together.