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March 26, 2008

LA Times on Adaptation


Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty | Science + Politics

Pielke LA Times.gif

The image above is from a LA Times story by Alan Zarembo and is based on some of our reserach on future hurricane damages under changes in both climate and society. Zarembo provides a perspective on a group of scholars and advocates that I once called "nonskeptical heretics." Nonskeptical because they accept the science presented by the IPCC (as noted by Zarembo), and heretics because they take strong issue with many of the closely held assumptions that have come to frame the debate over climate policies.

Zarembo characterizes one of the most insidious assumptions -- that support for adaptation necessarily means a loss of support for mitigation:

Other scientists say that time is running out to control carbon dioxide emissions and that the call to adapt is providing a potentially dangerous excuse to delay. . . Although most scientists agree that adaptation should play a major role in absorbing the effects of climate change, they say that buying into the heretics' arguments will dig the world into a deeper hole by putting off greenhouse gas reductions until it is too late.

Well, no. It is a strawman to argue that strong support for adaptation means that one cannot also provide strong support for mitigation. A problem arises for mitigation-first proponents when they invoke things like hurricanes, malaria, and drought as justification for mitigation when clearly adaptive responses will be far more effective. Those who persist in linking mitigation to reducing such climate impacts will always find themselves on the wrong side of what research has shown -- namely, climate change is a much smaller factor in such impacts than societal factors (compare the graph above). It is true. Get over it.

The best arguments for mitigation were presented by Zarembo coming from Steve Schneider, who rightly pointed to the uncertain but highly consequential impacts of human-caused climate change:

"You can't adapt to melting the Greenland ice sheet," said Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University. "You can't adapt to species that have gone extinct."

If advocacy for action on mitigation emphasized these very large scale long-term impacts, rather than disasters, disease, etc., then there would be no need for adaptation and mitigation to be presented as opposing approaches. Consider that none of the people quoted in the Zarembo story who I know (including me) have suggested that adaptation can replace mitigation, particularly for issues like sea level rise and specifies extinction. So the argument that adaptation can't deal with sea level rise over a century or more is somewhat of a strawman as well.

The reality is that whatever the world decides to do on mitigation, we will have no choice but to improve our adaptation to climate. Humans have been improving their adaptation to climate forever and will continue to do so. Since we are going to adapt, we should do it wisely. And this means rejecting bad policy arguments when offered in the way of substitutes for adaptation, like the tired old view that today's disaster losses are somehow a justification for changes to energy policies. Misleading policy arguments and should be pointed out as such, because they hurt both the cause of adaptation, but ironically the cause of mitigation as well.

If mitigation advocates do not like being told that their misleading arguments poorly serve policy debate, well, they should probably try to come up with a more robust set of arguments. Arguing that support for adaptation undercuts support for mitigation is a little like making the argument that support for eating healthy and getting exercise (adapting one's lifestyle) undercuts support for heart surgery research (mitigating the effects of heart disease). Obviously we should seek both adaptation and mitigation in the context of heart disease.

If the case for action on energy policy is so overwhelmingly strong (and again, I think that it is), then there should be no reason to resort to misleading arguments completely detached from the conclusions of a wide range of analyses. Misleading arguments may be politically expedient in the short term, but cannot help the mitigation cause in the long run. And dealing with the emissions of greenhouse gases will take place over the long run. Meantime, we'll adapt.

Posted on March 26, 2008 07:28 AM

Comments

Jonathan Gilligan interpreted the following sentence in the LA Times article to mean that I believe we should give up on mitigation:

"His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it."

Now that he points that out I see where he might get that interpretation. But it is wrong. As I wrote in this post, I think that mitigation and adaptation can co-exist just fine.

But if the issue is disasters, malaria, drought over the coming decades, and our goal is to address those impacts, then in no way can mitigation substitute for adaptive responses. Which is how I suggest interpreting the quoted statement above.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 26, 2008 09:01 AM


"You can't adapt to melting the Greenland ice sheet,"

This is (of course) incorrect. Any engineer worth his or her salt knows that there are always multiple solutions to virtually any problem. The question is simply whether any particular solution is cost-effective. Of course it's possible to adapt to the melting Greenland ice sheet. Here are just a few potential ways:

1) Fill in the moulins (the holes in the ice sheets that bring water from the surface down to the base, lubricating the base and causing the ice sheets to slide faster). This could probably be done with air-filled bags. Then direct water over the surface into the ocean.

2) Fill in the moulins as in item 1, but instead of directing the melt over the surface of the ice sheet into the ocean, capture it in artificial lakes, and pump it back for re-freezing in the winter.

3) Cover the ice sheet with reflective material, especially during the summer at lower elevations.

4) Collect the water right before it runs into the ocean, and take it in large bags to arid parts of the world, and to replenish aquifers (e.g. in China, or the Ogallala in the U.S.).

There are four adaptation measures for melting of the Greenland ice sheet. There are probably many more. Again, the real question is what they would cost, especially compared to the benefits achieved.

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 26, 2008 10:28 AM


Roger,

Thanks for posting this very useful clarification of your position.

Zarembo paraphrases you in the article: "Pielke says that even if his critics are right, it is becoming clear that the world lacks the political will to enact global emissions cuts."

Is this an accurate account of your words, and if so how do you respond to the counter-argument that however lacking the world is in will to cut emissions, it's even less willing to spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to help the poorest and most vulnerable nations adapt to climatic change (or even to present climatic conditions)?

I mean, heck, even in our own nation you've been railing for years at the inadequacies of NFIP and related policy, yet I don't see a lot of adaptation to well-known natural coastal hazards, much less the prospect that climatic change may increase the risk.

It seems that we agree on framing the question: adaptation is the only meaningful response to climatic hazards over the next 50 or even 100 years, but mitigation is essential to managing many large-scale hazards that will only emerge 100 or more years from now. We seem to disagree on details of the best policy response to this two-fold problem.

Posted by: Jonathan Gilligan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 26, 2008 02:10 PM


Jonathan-

Thanks for these comments. We seem to find plenty of places to agree.

One can point to all sorts of policy issues where progress has been less than optimal. So what? For me that is a good reason for why we need the contribution of policy analysts to figure out how to design policies that are practical, politically feasible, technically possible, cost-effective, and so on. If these challenges were easy (and climate change is only one of a large number of such challenges), they'd already have been solved.

Though, trust me, there are days when I think that policy analysis is a fruitless occupation;-)

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 26, 2008 03:00 PM


"Though, trust me, there are days when I think that policy analysis is a fruitless occupation;-)"

Why didn't someone tell me that before I shut down my laboratory to devote myself to policy matters? Fortunately, there's always teaching :)

Posted by: Jonathan Gilligan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 26, 2008 03:10 PM


Roger,

Let's talk about the policy implications of what you say: We agree that mitigation will not have any practical impact on climate-related quality-of-life issues over the next 50 years so adaptation is important for the next 50 years and mitigation is important for the longer term.

But that's not saying much. It will take around 50 years for even the most ambitious plausible mitigation policy to significantly reduce emissions in the developed world, to say nothing of China and India. Moreover, given the earth's multicentury thermal time constant, it's clear from basic physics that most of the benefit of mitigation will accrue to distant future generations (Even Nicholas Stern agrees that you can't justify dramatic mitigation unless you include effects of climate change through 2200: see fig. 6.5, p. 178 and table 6.1, p. 186).

But if we're going to protect the 22nd and 23rd centuries from possibly disastrous climate change, and if some of the more alarming predictions of a tipping point into runway warming at CO2-equivalent levels in the neighborhood of 450-550 ppmv have even a small possibility of being true, we'd need to start now on aggressive mitigation.

For this reason, I think your statement, "[D]ealing with the emissions of greenhouse gases will take place over the long run. Meantime, we'll adapt," may give readers a misleading complacency that because the effects are distant there is no urgency to mitigation. Putting on my policy advocate hat, I think it's precisely to protect distant posterity from climatic change that we need an aggressive mitigation policy now.

Reasonable people may disagree, and I think this is a fruitful point to discuss.

Posted by: Jonathan Gilligan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 27, 2008 10:04 AM


"It will take around 50 years for even the most ambitious plausible mitigation policy to significantly reduce emissions in the developed world, to say nothing of China and India."

World photovoltaic production has been doubling approximately every 2-3 years for the last decade. See the "additional data" link here:

http://environment.about.com/od/renewableenergy/a/solar_cells.htm

Photovoltaic production was approximately 3.6 gigawatts in 2007. That's at full sun. Obviously, the electricity generated would be much less. Let's say a factor of 10 less...that would be 0.36 gigawatts of constant power produced in 2007.

Total world electricity production is about 4 terwatts, and is expected to grow to 18 terawatts (18,000 gigawatts) by 2050. That means, in 2050, world electricity production is estimated at about 18,000/0.36 = 50,000 times the 2007 production.

The question is, if photovoltaics double in production every 2.5 years, when do they equal the entire world's electricity production?

Well, if they double every 2.5 years, that means a factor of 1000 growth in 25 years, and a factor of 50,000 growth about 15 years after that. So in 40 years, if photovoltaic production continues to double every 2.5 years, the photovoltaic production in that one year would be equal to the entire world's electrical production.

Obviously "your mileage may vary." There's obviously no guarantee that photovoltaic production will continue to double every 2.5 years for the next 40 years. But it's plausible.

Posted by: Mark Bahner [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 27, 2008 07:50 PM


Usually I have no or little complaints with media reporting about my position. Such reports are not always correct, of course, but mostly not really distorted. Alan Zarembo, however, is severely misrepresenting my position. He wrote "Hans von Storch, director of the Institute of Coastal Research in Germany, said that the world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small. It would be like going 160 kilometers per hour on the autobahn when 'going 150 . . . is already dangerous,' he said."
I have indeed used the speed-analog, but with a different meaning. The 150 km/h should represent the present climate dangers, and the 160 km/h the dangers in a climate changing due to enhanced greenhouse gas concentrations. Obviously this is not the same as "world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small".
Unfortunately, and quite differently from the routine I am used with US journalists, did Mr Zarembo not speak to me to find out what I actually said and mean. Misrepresentations like this happen, but it is unfortunate as Zarembos lines have been used by other media and by blogs, which proliferates a significantly distorted view of mine.

Posted by: Hans von Storch [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 02:12 AM


Usually I have no or little complaints with media reporting about my position. Such reports are not always correct, of course, but mostly not really distorted. Alan Zarembo, however, is severely misrepresenting my position. He wrote "Hans von Storch, director of the Institute of Coastal Research in Germany, said that the world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small. It would be like going 160 kilometers per hour on the autobahn when 'going 150 . . . is already dangerous,' he said."
I have indeed used the speed-analog, but with a different meaning. The 150 km/h should represent the present climate dangers, and the 160 km/h the dangers in a climate changing due to enhanced greenhouse gas concentrations. Obviously this is not the same as "world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small".
Unfortunately, and quite differently from the routine I am used with US journalists, did Mr Zarembo not speak to me to find out what I actually said and mean. Misrepresentations like this happen, but it is unfortunate as Zarembos lines have been used by other media and by blogs, which proliferates a significantly distorted view of mine.

Posted by: Hans von Storch [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 02:12 AM


Usually I have no or little complaints with media reporting about my position. Such reports are not always correct, of course, but mostly not really distorted. Alan Zarembo, however, is severely misrepresenting my position. He wrote "Hans von Storch, director of the Institute of Coastal Research in Germany, said that the world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small. It would be like going 160 kilometers per hour on the autobahn when 'going 150 . . . is already dangerous,' he said."
I have indeed used the speed-analog, but with a different meaning. The 150 km/h should represent the present climate dangers, and the 160 km/h the dangers in a climate changing due to enhanced greenhouse gas concentrations. Obviously this is not the same as "world's problems were already so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would be relatively small".
Unfortunately, and quite differently from the routine I am used with US journalists, did Mr Zarembo not speak to me to find out what I actually said and mean. Misrepresentations like this happen, but it is unfortunate as Zarembos lines have been used by other media and by blogs, which proliferates a significantly distorted view of mine.

Posted by: Hans von Storch [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 02:16 AM


Dr. von Storch,

I don't understand the distinction you're trying to draw. If the hazards of the natural climate represent 150 km/hr and the hazards of natural climate + anthropogenic change represent 160, why would it be incorrect to infer that you're saying the added burdens caused by anthropogenic change would be relatively small?

Could you please explain this more clearly?

Posted by: Jonathan Gilligan [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 10:32 AM


In my view, one of the reasons the adaptation/mitigation dichotomy is so bogus is that different communities of scientists and practitioners work on the different problems, did work on them and will work on them in the future- unless we suddenly fire all the people who work on topics requiring adaptation (dealing with water, fire, biodiversity, agriculture, etc.)

Reducing greenhouse gases used in fuels and energy requires efforts of renewable energy technology developers and others. Communities adapting to lack of water requires the usual water suspects, and adapting to new climate in agriculture requires the usual agriculture research suspects.
I suppose there is a question as to the array of research funds to each discipline for climate change research but, speaking as a natural resources practitioner, I am not suddenly going to go to work on energy efficiency or new energy sources. Ultimately communities of science and practice do what they do- some work on adaptation, some on mitigation, some on both- and will continue to do what they do.

Sharon Friedman

Posted by: docpine [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 29, 2008 08:13 PM


Jonathan, docpine, et al - what makes you so sure increased CO2 will not increase Hadley cell circulation (it will by the way) and thereby shear off the tops of hurricanes more, so that instead of 150 we're only going 140?

I don't know what it is, but you're not being realistic.

We simply have no clue what even the order of magnitude of adaptation is. Sorry to knock you off your pedestals...

Posted by: Harry Haymuss [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 31, 2008 10:10 PM


Roger, your analogy in the context of heart disease is perhaps valid, but I would interpret it quite differently. Firstly, I view mitigation as a preventive measure and adaptation as a responsive measure. As such, changing one’s lifestyle (to prevent potential adverse effects in the future) is comparable with mitigation (mitigation indeed requires humankind to change their collective lifestyles and use of technology) and heart surgery is a treatment of current effects (and thus comparable with adaptation. And psychologically it could well be that people are less likely to change their behavior when they believe that (possible) negative effects of their behavior could be remedied. The dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation may not exist in an intellectual exercise on policy options, but it does in my view exist in the psychology of individuals’ and groups’ behavior in society. Which is why pushing adaptation could have the unintended side-effect of decreasing the chances for aggressive mitigation to occur.

Posted by: Darrel [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 2, 2008 03:30 AM


Roger, your analogy in the context of heart disease is perhaps valid, but I would interpret it quite differently. Firstly, I view mitigation as a preventive measure and adaptation as a responsive measure. As such, changing one’s lifestyle (to prevent potential adverse effects in the future) is comparable with mitigation (mitigation indeed requires humankind to change their collective lifestyles and use of technology) and heart surgery is a treatment of current effects (and thus comparable with adaptation. And psychologically it could well be that people are less likely to change their behavior when they believe that (possible) negative effects of their behavior could be remedied. The dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation may not exist in an intellectual exercise on policy options, but it does in my view exist in the psychology of individuals’ and groups’ behavior in society. Which is why pushing adaptation could have the unintended side-effect of decreasing the chances for aggressive mitigation to occur.

Posted by: Darrel [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 2, 2008 03:31 AM


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