Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It's About Adaptation, Stupid

Yet another report finds that some of the most grave effects of climate change are likely unavoidable anytime over the next 1000 years. Even if other greenhouse gases are seriously reduced, carbon dioxide - which amounts to about half of anthropogenic GhGs - remains much longer in the atmosphere.

"I think you have to think about this stuff as more like nuclear waste than acid rain: The more we add, the worse off we'll be," NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon told reporters in a conference call. "The more time that we take to make decisions about carbon dioxide, the more irreversible climate change we'll be locked into."


At the moment, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere stand at 385 parts per million. Many climate scientists and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have set a goal of stabilizing atmospheric carbon at 450 ppm, but current projections put the world on track to hit 550 ppm by 2035, rising after that point by 4.5 percent a year.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, projects that if carbon dioxide concentrations peak at 600 ppm, several regions of the world -- including southwestern North America, the Mediterranean and southern Africa -- will face major droughts as bad or worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Global sea levels will rise by about three feet by the year 3000, a projection that does not factor in melting glaciers and polar ice sheets that would probably result in significant additional sea level rises.

Even if the world managed to halt the carbon dioxide buildup at 450 ppm, the researchers concluded, the subtropics would experience a 10 percent decrease in precipitation, compared with the 15 percent decrease they would see at 600 ppm. That level is still akin to mega-droughts such as the Dust Bowl. The already parched U.S. Southwest would probably see a 5 percent drop in precipitation during its dry season.

Look, emissions credit trading is fine in my view as a stopgap measure, as are carbon taxes. But neither present a real answer to climate change, as I've been saying over the past few years (see here, and more here, here, here, and here). Much of the international negotiations over climate change are, however, based on the extent of trading regimes, taxes, etc. I'm not saying that this is not important. Mitigation is crucial, and these mitigation policy options are crucial, but a wise overall climate policy will view them as part of a larger basket of diverse policy efforts.

If we're truly serious about climate change, however, we have to be more serious about adaptation. Many are, including the grand environmental institutions like the UNFCCC (1992), it's offshoot the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and much of post-Kyoto thinking (for instance, the not uncontroversial Clean Development Mechanism of the Protocol is designed to extend assistance to poor countries).

It's pretty basic. The negative effects of climate change- such as desertification and drought, flooding in other areas, changing vegetation, etc. - are already and will increasingly be felt by human beings. Those who will bear the brunt of the negative effects live in developing or least developed countries and are usually the poorest of these people. Poor people have the least capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change precisely because they are poor. But they also have the least to do with creating the problem. The wealthy industrial countries (and increasingly the rapidly developing countries of China, India, etc.) are the most responsible for both historical and current emissions. In this sense, the exacerbation of already difficult conditions for the global poor are largely the cause of the wealthy nations.

The responsibility is clear. The discourse and rhetoric, as much as climate policy, need to reflect this responsibility.


troutsky said...

cap and trade reinforces the narrative that Markets can get us out of the mess that Markets got us in. It is ideological rather than practical, and as you point out , the time for argumentation is long past.

helmut said...

I'm not sure how much I'd blame "markets," and I worry about any reductive approach to something as massive as the problem of climate change.

But it is clear that the way out will involve good science, market economics, institutional economics, political science, ethics and epistemology, concrete efforts at distributive justice, civil society as well as state leaders, international law experts, diplomats, poor and disenfranchised people and/or their representatives, etc. There's no neat and simple answer, in my view.