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November 20, 2007

Optimal Adaptation?


Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Disasters

Thomas Henry Huxley once described science as "organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact." The same can be said of economics.

In a unpublished letter to Nature posted as a comment on the Nature Climate Feedback blog Australian economist John Quiggin responds to the recent Prins/Rayner piece in Nature. He explains how economics theory indicates that we really have no reason to worry about adaptation to climate change, because economics theory says so:

Prins and Rayner also assume that because adaptation is as important as mitigation, it should receive equal attention as a focus of public policy. But emissions of greenhouse gases represent a market failure. No individual or nation has a strong incentive to reduce their own emissions. Hence, mitigation requires a global policy response so that this externality is taken into account. By contrast, private parties, in deciding how to adapt to climate change, will, in the absence of policy intervention, bear the costs and receive the benefits of their decisions in most cases. There is no reason to expect too little adaptation.

I suppose one could argue that this thesis is supported by the obvious fact that the world today does indeed have an optimal level of climate adaptation.
bostonherald.jpg
But then again, one might also take a look at Bangladesh and the effects of Cyclone Sidr over the past week to see that such an argument is not only wrong but wrongheaded, and perhaps even morally bereft. The two "private parties" in the photo to the left (courtesy of The Boston Herald) are obviously practicing "optimal adaptation" in the "absence of policy intervention."

Yeah, right.

Posted on November 20, 2007 10:32 AM

Comments

Nicely put, Roger. Couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Ben Hale [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 20, 2007 12:24 PM



A cheap shot, especially when used to oppose action by rich countries to reduce their own emissions, and thereby the risk of even worse disasters like this in the future.

Obviously, there's nothing optimal about the distribution of wealth in the world that leaves poor people without enough of anything, including protection against natural disasters.

Posted by: John QUiggin [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 01:47 PM


Quiggin: "Obviously, there's nothing optimal about the distribution of wealth in the world that leaves poor people without enough of anything, including protection against natural disasters."

Rayner/Prins: "Many climate activists seem to assume that slowing greenhouse-gas emissions has logical and ethical priority over adapting to climate impacts. But the ethical issues cut both ways. Current emissions reductions will mainly benefit future generations, whereas the momentum already in the climate system drives the near-term. Faced with imminent warming, adaptation has a faster response time, a closer coupling with innovation and incentive structures, and thereby confers more protection more quickly to more people. It is not clear to us that the interests of millions of people in poorer countries who depend on marginal ecosystems are best served by an exclusive preoccupation with mitigation. Indeed, such a narrow focus is likely to be a fatal error. Mitigation and adaptation must go hand in hand."

Where is the disagreement? I don't see it.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 06:19 PM



As I said in the comment you are responding to, adaptation is just as important as mitigation. But that doesn't make it a sensible focus for international policy agreements. In this context, talk about adaptation has typically amounted to an excuse for doing nothing, since this is not an issue that can usefully be addressed at the global level, unlike mitigation. The use of adaptation as a copout is particularly prevalent with the Bush Administration, whose stance is praised by Rayner and Prins.

The best way to help people in more countries to adapt to climate change is to give them more resources and let them decide how best to use them.If they had the resources, poor people and poor countries could manage adaptation themselves

The best international agreement is one in which rich countries bear the costs of global reductions in emissions and compensate poor countries for the costs they have already imposed.

Posted by: John QUiggin [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 21, 2007 11:20 PM


What costs would you associate with 1st world causes of "Global Warming"? Surely not all costs of discomfort. What about overpopulation, overfarming, political corruption, and natural causes?

Who would collect and disperse these "resources"? Some global government? No doubt you would be willing to "serve"?

What about positives, like increased flora growth and rainfall from enhanced CO2? Do we get to offset with those? Maybe we should find out what those are first... Maybe you, too, should read the AR4 Technical Summary instead of the political documents (the key word is "uncertainty").

What if the offsets from CO2 turn out to be more than the negatives? Do the brokers still get a commission ;-)

This call for premature redistribution of money has undertones of both "Original Sin" and Luddism (at least).

Posted by: The Heretic [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 07:12 AM


John-

I am having a hard time making sense of your comments, e.g.,

First: "adaptation is just as important as mitigation. But that doesn't make it a sensible focus for international policy agreements."

Second: "The best way to help people in more countries to adapt to climate change is to give them more resources and let them decide how best to use them.If they had the resources, poor people and poor countries could manage adaptation themselves. The best international agreement is one in which rich countries bear the costs of global reductions in emissions and compensate poor countries for the costs they have already imposed."

So adaptation should not be part of international agreements or it should?

And I still fail to see where you disagree with Prins/Rayner. If you think that they praise the Bush approach they'd I'd suggest rereading their piece!

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 07:41 AM


As regards whether P&R praise Bush's approach to the problem, they say

"Kyoto's supporters often blame non-signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia, for its woes. But the Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job"

and:


"In September, the United States convened the top 16 polluters. Such initiatives are summarily dismissed by Kyoto’s true believers, who see them as diversions rather than necessary first steps. However, these approaches begin to recognize the reality that fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world’s emissions."

Posted by: John QUiggin [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 12:48 PM


As regards your failure to see my point, maybe you should have put a bit of effort into thinking about it before taking a cheap shot against it. And it might have helped if you had responded to the full piece, which I published at both Crooked Timber and my blog, rather than an extract from a comment. Rather than keep going with this proliferation of comments and meta-comments on out of context extracts, I think I'd better write a new post where I can spell it out more clearly.

Posted by: John QUiggin [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 01:06 PM


John-

Thanks for the tip that you had written something further on Rayner/Prins, which I found here:

http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2007/10/29/prins-and-rayner-on-kyoto/

What I found there on adaptation doesn't really sound any different that what you wrote at Nature:

"By contrast, private parties, in deciding how to adapt to climate change, will, in the absence of policy intervention, bear the costs and receive the benefits of their decisions in most cases. There is no particular reason to expect too much or too little adaptation. Of course, there is a role for governments in the provision of information, and in large-scale adaptation decisions regarding infrastructure, urban planning and so on, but even here, there is in most cases no need for any co-ordinated international action."

I'll respectfully disagree and again point to real world disasters -- like Sidr -- that suggest a strong need for international coordination in the form of disaster preparedness, response, and indeed, broad sustainable development.

It is Prins and Rayner who write that "Mitigation and adaptation must go hand in hand." It is you who writes, "talk about adaptation has typically amounted to an excuse for doing nothing." Prins/Rayner are not at all deemphasizing mitigation (e.g., they just released a 30,000-word brief almost entirely on mitigation!); by contrast, you are indeed deemphasizing adaptation by suggesting that it is a political ploy against mitigation. This tired thinking is exactly what Prins/Rayner are trying to counter.

If you want to try to clarify your point on adaptation in a further blog post, please send along a pointer and I'll gladly post a link to it and respond.

PS. It is pretty weak tea to suggest that Prins/Rayner's idea of bringing major emitters to the table is an endorsement of the "Bush approach." Everyone these days says that major emitters need to be at the table, don't they? Are you opposed to Prins/Rayner's suggestion that we (a) have the top 20 emitters at the table, or (b) deemphasize the bottom 170?

PPS. It is by now an old rhetorical ploy to try to associate one's opponents in a policy debate with Bush policies, understanding of course that they are all failures, and if Bush supports something, then no policy analysis is therefore needed (we see this style of argument all the time in the US election campaign, and I'd bet you see it a fair bit also in the Aus campaign now underway) . . . but I'd hope that we academics can leave that sort of gamesmanship to the political pros, and we can just stick to the wonky meat of substantive policy debate, how about it? ;-)

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 22, 2007 05:42 PM


"In this context, talk about adaptation has typically amounted to an excuse for doing nothing, since this is not an issue that can usefully be addressed at the global level, unlike mitigation."

This is clearly wrong. I've proposed many mitigation measures that could be addressed at a global level, including several I've given at this blog. Let's look at a few, in order of relevancy to Roger's post:

1) I've proposed that the U.S. government develop and deploy a movable hurricane storm surge protection system that can be deployed in a few days, and can protect up to 150 km along either the U.S. Gulf or East coasts from up to a Category 5 storm surge. Had such a system been developed and deployed pre-Katrina, virtually all of the damage caused by the flooding of New Orleans could have been avoided; this amounts to over $50 billion saved from that one storm.

Further, if such a system was developed and deployed for the U.S., similar systems could be produced and deployed for ANY coastal areas, worldwide, that are threatened by storm surges. For example, a system could be produced for and deployed anywhere in the Bay of Bengal, thereby protecting Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The cost to produce and deploy later generations of systems could be expected to be less than for the U.S., due to experience gained from the U.S. system(s).

My (very rough) estimate of the cost of such a system (capable of protecting up to 150 km from a Category 5 hurricane, and deployed within a few days) is approximately $5-10 billion, with a "very likely" probability (i.e., 90% confidence) that such a system would be less than $20 billion. Further, each deployment would likely cost less than $1 billion.

The costs for production and deployment for poor countries (e.g., those surrounding the Bay of Bengal) could be handled with an international aid fund.

2) Polar bears could be provided with artificial ice flows, or insulation for natural ice flows. Alternatively, seal pups could simply be euthanized and left on beaches for polar bears. Such measures could be funded by countries near the Arctic (e.g. U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, etc.) Money spent directly on such efforts would undoubtably be more beneficial to polar bears over the next 50+ years than reducing CO2 emissions. (A recent poll, the Pew Polar Bear Poll, shows that 9 out of 10 polar bears would prefer the direct aid. ;-))

3) Coral reefs that are threatened by excessive temperatures could be cooled. An even slicker idea is to run electric current through the coral, to plate out calcium from the ocean:

http://www.globalcoral.org/Electric%20Current%20Saves%20Corals%20in%20Indonesia.htm

These coral protection/*enhancement* measures could be funded internationally.

So there are plenty of mitigation measures that could be funded internationally. These measures would have much more direct and obvious benefits than CO2 reduction measures.

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 26, 2007 08:15 PM


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