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Climate mitigation and adaptation

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Twitter and the blogosphere are aflutter with references to David Robert’s post, “Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent“.  I read the post with the mindset that David was trying to continue recent climate-related public themes.  With that in mind, I wanted to respond to some points.

Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy credited to White House science advisor John Holdren, to wit: We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix. […] It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

I’ll start by noting my disagreement that Holdren’s framing establishes equitable fungibility.  That’s not the way I interpret it, anyway.  For me, it boils down to this: we have a finite amount of resources to devote to climate action.  What we spend them on remains undecided.  I don’t think of one unit of mitigation equaling one unit of adaptation.  Such a frame strikes me as silly, to be quite frank.  Many factors will go into deciding where to spend resources.  I think local and state US governments are choosing adaptation because they’ve correctly assessed that mitigation is costlier.  Governments have responsibilities to their constituencies – not far-off populations that are admittedly more at risk from climate change than ours.  That’s one of the Big Pillar Problems: climate change effects impact people with little responsibility to the problem disproportionately.  It is psychologically sound to muster less action for “others” than “selves” – for better or worse, altruism isn’t rewarded in our society.  Unfortunately, that’s the reality we live and operate in.  Wishes aren’t going to change that.

Communities and organizations could break up resources to mitigate potential dirty energy projects and make them clean in foreign countries where it is relatively cheaper to do so while simultaneously allocating remaining resources to address perceived threats locally.  That’s a harder thing to do than what I describe above – only adapt locally – but it’s also cheaper than mitigating locally (for now).

Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).

David contradicts what he said prior to this with this statement.  The poorest and most vulnerable benefit more than he does.  But note the fundamental, critical point here: can anyone benefit by $10/7,000,000,000?  What can I do with 1.43*10^-9 dollars?  Absolutely nothing.  And neither can the primary benefitees, who have to share most of that calculable but meaningless number.  The second point which follows quickly on the heels of the first is that any mitigation investment requires multiple billions before anyone sees one dollar’s value and multiple trillions before anyone sees something meaningful.  Where does that money come from and how do we convince people to make the required investment with the aforementioned psychological barriers to doing so?

One obvious implication of this difference is that, to the extent spending favors adaptation over mitigation, it will replicate and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits will accrue to those with the money to pay for them.

I’ll look at this differently to help understand it better: will additional mitigation spending reduce wealth and power inequalities?  Is David arguing that developing countries will be equally wealthy and powerful if climate spending is directed towards mitigation and not adaptation?  That’s probably a logical extreme.  Will we reduce inequalities between developing and developed countries to a greater extent due to mitigation or adaptation is one potential question we can address.  I haven’t seen anything that convinces me of one argument or the other.  I haven’t seen anything that addresses quantitatively either argument, to be frank.

It becomes more expensive to mitigate to an arbitrarily chosen threshold if the date by which to do so remains unchanged.  That is, if you accept <2C warming by 2100 as a goal (though I’ve detailed many times why such a goal is unfeasible), then mitigation costs are lower if we begin mitigation today instead of 20 years from now.  But why do we accept unnecessary firm boundaries on the problem?  If, as I’ve postulated, <2C warming by 2100 isn’t technologically or politically feasible, then one or both boundaries must change.  The further out in time we set the goal, the likelier it is that technologies will exist to more cheaply attain the goal.  The higher the temperature goal is, the likelier we are to achieve it.  And just like in the rest of our lives, the easier the goal is to attain, the likelier we are to do so.  And once done, the easier it becomes to attain subsequent along-the-road goals.

What’s left out of these goals is developed nation-level energy generation in developing nations – in other words keeping poor people poor indefinitely.  Mitigation alone won’t reduce wealth inequality.  If David wants to reduce wealth inequality, the best way to do so is to post-industrialize developing nations as quickly as possible.  With reduced inequality comes increased power.  The side benefits?  Developed nations actually work on mitigation (again, saving costs by mitigating where it’s cheaper) they can concentrate on adapting to climate effects along the way.

I recognize David’s valid point that skeptics are likely to latch onto the “we need to adapt” frame as a way to continue avoiding “we need to mitigate” concept.  But skeptics are going to continue avoiding the problem so long as we don’t switch how we talk with them.

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