Climate Adaptation: Policy Groundhog Day?


Yesterday, Matthew posted this piece with an interview with Andrew Revkin. It began

“Once derided, ways of adapting to climate change are gaining steam”

I had a feeling that I had read that somewhere, possibly a long time,  before.   I looked it up, and sure enough, I found this 2007 science op-ed (that is, an opinion piece by scientists, published in Nature)  claiming much the same thing. The authors are Roger Pielke, Jr., Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner and Daniel Sarewitz.

But perspectives have changed. Adaptation is again seen as an essential part of climate policy alongside greenhouse-gas mitigation. Both the recent Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrate that adaptation is firmly back on the agenda. There are at least three reasons why the taboo on adaptation can no longer be enforced.

First, there is a timescale mismatch. Whatever actions ultimately lead to the decarbonization of the global energy system, it will be many decades before they have a discernible effect on the climate. Historical emissions dictate that climate change is unavoidable. And even the most optimistic emissions projections show global greenhouse-gas concentrations rising for the foreseeable future.

Second, vulnerability to climate-related impacts on society are increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies. As Hurricane Katrina made devastatingly clear, climate vulnerability is caused by unsustainable patterns of development combined with socioeconomic inequity.

Post-Katrina debate focused on whether or not the event bore the signature of global warming, despite the fact that scientists have known for decades the inevitability of a Katrina-like disaster in New Orleans.

Finally, those who will suffer the brunt of climate impacts are now demanding that the international response to climate change focus on increasing the resilience of vulnerable societies to damaging climate events that — like Katrina — will occur regardless of efforts to mitigate emissions. In 2002, developing countries put forward the ‘Delhi Declaration’, calling for greater attention to adaptation in international climate-change policy negotiations.

Does the above statement about Katrina remind anyone else of wildfires? Of course, adaptation is required, regardless of the proportion of climate change attributed, or attributable, to human impacts.   Most of us who have done climate planning for feds or others have consciously targeted both adaptation and mitigation.  Some groups deal more with adaptation and not so much mitigation (think plant breeders, water engineers).  But why is adaptation not as “cool” as mitigation? Why does it need to be repeatedly rediscovered? What are the forces that have been, and may be continuing to, work against adaptation as having its own place in the sun?

Here are my hypotheses:

(1) First in, last out.  Climate modelers found a primary place in the public conversation and a certain liking of being close to power, plus lots of research funding.  They may be reluctant to give some of that up to adaptation folks. Does anyone know how much federal research goes to mitigation (I’m also interested in the proportion to predicting and analyzing vs. developing technology) compared to adaptation?

(2) Physics envy.  Let’s just say that the traditional biases say the closer you are to organisms and people in your studies, the less cool your research is.

(3) Not as engaging. Media and politicians like getting people worked up, the former so they click, and the latter so they click on donations.  County planning or a new milo variety does not have the same cachet (I guess the word is engagement) as a new study that shows that things are worse than previously thought.

Other ideas?


6 thoughts on “Climate Adaptation: Policy Groundhog Day?”

  1. (4) If the pot of money is limited, dollars going to adaptation are not going to mitigation/prevention, and mitigation efforts have global benefits, while adaptation benefits tend to be local. (But what this probably means is that the wealthier nations/regions/areas will be finding a way to pay for those local benefits.)

  2. It’s the socialism. They want socialism, and the major peg of their argument (for decades!) has been climate change. So, adaptation as a response to climate change has been ignored because it does not promote what they really want: to change the US system from what it is to socialism. Figure out a way to argue for adaptation that will promote the goals of a socialist US, and adaptation will suddenly become that which is au courant (woke in the common speak).

  3. I feel a need to clarify. I am not accusing anyone of being involved in a conscious effort to promote socialism. I am just pointing out that the major tenets of mitigation of climate change would de facto produce a socialist America, whereas the major tenets of adaptation would not. And that, I am suggesting, is what drives the public debate towards mitigation, and away from adaptation, because the major purveyors of the public debate have an affinity for, if not conscious socialism, at least an outcome that would look very much like socialism. So, I am proposing that to get everyone onboard in a real discussion about climate change and adaptation, the only way to do so would be to couch adaptation in rhetoric that is at least amendable to a socialist type outcome.

  4. It may be Fox “News” latest agenda to claim that liberals want a “socialist type outcome,” but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m assuming the desired outcome for most people is a livable planet. The role of government is a means to that not an ends. (And I don’t think we can adapt our way to that outcome.)

    • I think part of the problem is that folks have never had a really open discussion of all the multitudinous possible policy responses in a multi partisan broad sense. Which fosters an us/them approach and a lack of trust.
      In other words, proposing partisan solutions leaves people out and actually can make it less likely the problem actually gets solved.

  5. “Proposing partisan solutions?” Not sure what you mean. It’s hard to avoid winners and losers. Maybe using a partisan process?


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