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Jonathan Gilligan is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on the intersection of science, ethics, and public policy with a focus on the ways in which scientific knowledge and uncertainty affect policy decisions about the environment.


March 25, 2008

Why adaptation is not sufficient

Just after I post suggesting that it would be more constructive to get out of the zero-sum construction of adaptation and mitigation, the LA Times has a story featuring Roger Pielke, Jr. and others saying we should give up on mitigation and focus on adaptation: "His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it."

[Correction: Roger informs me that this quotation mischaracterizes his position as posing a dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation. I apologize for taking the reporter's words at face value without checking their veracity first. The comment that follows, then, does not refer specifically to Roger's views, but I leave it because the false perception that we must choose between adaptation and mitigation is common and I wish to make clear that it's wrong.]

That's just not going to do it, in part because it ignores the value of ecosystem services. I would like anti-mitigationists to address how adaptation will address ecosystems, particularly the effect of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.

I am also very concerned about the economic effects of disrupting terrestrial ecosystems on agriculture. I have a hard time believing anti-mitigation arguments based on cost-benefit analyses that set a zero value on threats to ecosystem services simply because they don't know how to quantify those.

Beyond the effects on ecosystems, water scarcity is a significant threat and the policy literature is littered with the remains of papers suggesting that technological fixes would solve water scarcity problems. One of my favorites is Alvin Weinberg in the 1960s suggesting that nuclear-powered desalination would resolve the Israeli/Arab conflict in short order. If droughts become more severe in many parts of the world, history suggests that adaptation is likely to be much more difficult and expensive than we think.

Adaptation is absolutely necessary because no matter what we do we can't stop some amount of climate change over the coming century, but without mitigation we're looking at very big downside risks, not so much in the maximum-likelihood case, but in exactly the sort of low-probability/high-consequence stuff to which, according to Pielke's flood policy research, our political system is very bad at adapting even in the absence of anthropogenic climate change.

So if our political system stinks at managing floods, coastal storm risks, and fresh-water resources in the absence of anthropogenic climate change, why would it manage better if climate change does turn out to significantly increase the mean severity and/or variance of the distribution?

Adaptation is important but I would like to propose that farm subsidies would be a much more deserving budget category to raid in order to pay for it than GHG mitigation. This is particularly apt because agriculture will need to do much more adapting than most economic sectors.

Or we could try for a coupled mitigation-adaptation funding scheme: Impose a carbon tax at the well head, the mine shaft, or the port of entry and use the proceeds to pay for adaptation. Would this not be an elegant Pigovian solution which would let the market decide how to balance mitigation and adaptation?

Are both of these suggestions naive and unlikely to get through a committee on the Hill? Of course, but neither is it likely that we'll see anyone in Congress pushing to reallocate billions of dollars from Lieberman-Warner toward helping Bangladesh to deal with rising sea levels or sub-Saharan Africa to adapt its agriculture to drought.

But to cast climate policy as a zero-sum division of resources, especially when the total pie is so inadequately small, is tediously unimaginative. [Deleted reference to this position as representing Pielke's views]

Posted on March 25, 2008 11:23 PM View this article | Comments (11)
Posted to Author: Gilligan, J. | Climate Change

March 24, 2008

Why no candidate positions on adaptation?

Over at the NY Times, Nicki Bennett makes a guest post on Nicholas Kristoff's "On the Ground" blog about climate change and Dhaka Bangladesh. After some fairly boilerplate stuff about how climate change is likely to affect people there, she raises an important point that we don't see reported sufficiently:

Back at the office, feeling curious, I decide to conduct a quick (and totally unscientific) experiment to check how much people in the United States actually care about the issue: I log onto the websites of the main U.S. presidential candidates to see if they have a position on climate change. Some of them talk about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. None talk about paying money into the climate change “adaptation” fund. And none are talking about the impact of climate change on poor people – or what they might do about the fact that places like Bangladesh and New Orleans are already being bashed by climate-related disasters and slowly losing land to rising sea levels.

This makes me think about how we seem to hear from many proponents of adaptation policy only when they are setting mitigation and adaptation against each other as slices in a zero-sum climate policy pie.

It would be nice to hear more discussion of adaptation independently of mitigation. I wonder whether separating the two issues more in public discourse would make it easier to press for adaptation policy by making it harder for candidates to say in essence, "I gave at the office with my mitigation policy."

Posted on March 24, 2008 10:26 AM View this article | Comments (3)
Posted to Author: Gilligan, J. | Climate Change

November 02, 2007

Individual Behavior and Climate Policy

Michael Vandenbergh and Anne Steinemann have a paper forthcoming in the NYU Law Review called "The Carbon Neutral Individual." (a preprint is available on SSRN.)

In this paper, Vandenbergh and Steinemann assess the carbon dioxide output under the direct control of individuals and households, such as driving, space heating, household electricity use, and find that this accounts for 32% of US carbon dioxide emissions. The authors do not attempt a comprehensive footprint (something that would include indirect carbon emissions from manufacturing commodities, grow food, etc.) but focus on those things where the carbon dioxide emissions are most directly connected to the individual's action (getting in the car or adjusting the thermostat).

The paper notes that just the individual and household carbon emissions in the U.S. are greater than the total emissions of any other nation save China.

Vandenbergh and Steinemann conclude that any climate change mitigation policy must seriously consider measures to stimulate individual behavior change---perhaps by activating personal norms---in addition to more traditional regulatory actions that focus on large industrial actors.

On which topic, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, the Precourt Institute, and the California Institute for Energy and Environment are holding a joint conference next week in Sacramento on Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change

Disclaimer: I work with Vandenbergh, so this is not an unbiased assessment.

Posted on November 2, 2007 08:35 PM View this article | Comments (2)
Posted to Author: Gilligan, J. | Climate Change

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