Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery

Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions.

We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.

That’s the pithiest expression I’ve seen on the subject of adaptation, via John Holdren, now science advisor.  Sometimes he uses “misery,” rather than “suffering.”

I’m going to start a multipart series on adaptation — in honor of the fifth anniversary of Katrina.  That disaster provides many lessons we continue to ignore, such as Global warming “adaptation” is a cruel euphemism “” and prevention is far, far cheaper.

I draw a distinction between real adaptation, where one seriously proposes trying to prepare for what’s to come if we don’t do real mitigation (i.e. an 800 to 1000+ ppm world aka Hell and High Water) and rhetorical adaptation, which is a messaging strategy used by those who really don’t take global warming seriously — those who oppose serious mitigation and who don’t want to do bloody much of anything, but who don’t want to seem indifferent to the plight of humanity (aka poor people in other countries, who they think will be the only victims at some distant point in the future).

In practice, rhetorical adaptation really means “buck up, fend for yourself, walk it off.”  Let’s call the folks who push that “maladapters.”  Typically, people don’t spell out specifically where they stand on the scale from real to rhetorical.

I do understand that because mitigation is so politically difficult, people are naturally looking at other “strategies.”  But most of the discussion of adaptation in the media and blogosphere misses the key points:

  1. Real adaptation is substantially more expensive than mitigation (see Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must, reprinted below).
  2. Real adaptation without very substantial mitigation is just a cruel euphemism (see An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water).
  3. Real adaptation requires much bigger and far more intrusive government than mitigation.  Indeed, if the anti-science ideologues get their way and stop serious mitigation, then the government will inevitably get into the business of telling people where they can and can’t live (can’t let people keep rebuilding in the ever-spreading flood plains or the ever-enlarging areas threatened by sea level rise and DustBowlification) and how they can live (sharp water curtailment in the SW DustBowl, for instance) and possibly what they can eat.  Conservative action against climate action now will force big government in coming decades to triage our major coastal cities — Key West and Galveston and probably New Orleans would be unsavable, but what about Miami and Houston?  I’ll do a separate post on this and would love suggestions for what kinds of things government would have to decide and spend money on if we listen to the maladapters and stay anywhere near our current emissions path.
  4. Real adaptation is so expensive (and endless) that it is essentially impossible to imagine how a real adaptation bill could pass Congress — unless of course you paid for it with a high and rising price for CO2.  Hmm.  Why didn’t somebody think of that?
  5. The only people who will pursue real adaptation are those who understand the latest science and are prepared to take serious political  action based on that understanding. Unfortunately, that doesn’t  include any of the people people who helped kill the climate bill.  There isn’t really much point in spending tens of billions of dollars to plan for, say,  a sea level rise of one foot if that isn’t what’s coming.  The point is,  you can’t even imagine doing the planning and bill-writing and then actually investing in  real adaptation — unless  you accept the science  and do serious worst-case planning.  But if  you accepted the science, you’d  obviously pursue mitigation as your primary strategy, while using  some of the proceeds from the climate bill to support adaptation.

So real adaptation is not more politically viability than  real mitigation — and what really is the point of pursuing something that is not more politically viable than mitigation when it  won’t actually prevent misery and suffering for billions of people?  Sure, we must pursue adaptation for Americans — and we are ethically bound to help developing countries adapt to the climate change that we helped create — but real mitigation is the sine qua non.

Real mitigation is an effort to keep emissions as far below 450 ppm as is possible — and if we go above 450 ppm, to get back to 350 as fast as possible (see How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution).

Let me expand on #1 and #2 below.

What is the cost of “adaptation”?  It is almost incalculable.  The word is a virtually meaningless euphemism in the context of catastrophic global warming.  Here is what we now understand we may very well face on our current emissions path:

And that isn’t the worst case:

How exactly do you adapt to that?  What  precisely do you plan for in your adaptation strategy?  You  need to determine at some point whether you can save Miami, say,  because you wouldn’t want to waste $100 billion trying only to find out  you planned for the wrong scenario and it was hopeless.  Then again, who is going to get people out of their cities as long as one  political party is devoted to shouting down anybody who claims humans are actually warming the planet.

And how exactly do Muscovites “adapt” to  the possibility of 20°F Arctic warming?  What would a 1000-year heat-wave look like in 2100 if the  planet is 9°F warmer?  How  exactly would the world adapt to see levels 4 to 6 feet high in 2100 and then rising 1 foot a decade?

Fundamentally, massive prevention plus lots of adaptation (and some misery) is much, much, much cheaper than not bloody much prevention and incomprehensible amounts of adaptation and suffering and misery.

And as the IIED reported a year ago, the study Assessing the costs of adaptation to climate change: a review of the UNFCCC and other recent estimates concludes costs will be even more when the full range of climate impacts on human activities is considered.

Scientists led by a former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [warn] that the UN negotiations aimed at tackling climate change are based on substantial underestimates of what it will cost to adapt to its impacts.

The real costs of adaptation are likely to be 2-3 times greater than estimates made by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), say Professor Martin Parry and colleagues in a new report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development [IIED].

The study finds that the mean “Net present value of climate change impacts” in the A2 scenario is $1240 TRILLION with no adaptation, but “only” $890 trillion with adaptation.

The mean [annual] impacts in 2060 are about $1.5 trillion”¦.  As usual, there is a long right tail, with a small probability of impacts as large as $20 trillion.

Don’t worry folks, it’s only a “small probability” (in their analysis) “” but that “fat tail” by itself is enough to render all traditional economic analyses useless (see Harvard economist: Climate cost-benefit analyses are “unusually misleading,” warns colleagues “we may be deluding ourselves and others”).  Let’s put aside the fact we are on pace to exceed the A2 scenario (which is “only” about 850 ppm atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in 2100):  See U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm.  For this country, the A2 scenario means 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year.

But here’s the key point the media and the authors failed to convey.  In the “aggressive abatement” case (450 ppm), the mean “Net present value [NPV] of climate change impacts” is only $410 trillion “” or $275 trillion with adaptation.  So stabilizing at 450 ppm reduces NPV impacts by $615 to $830 trillion.  But the abatement NPV cost is only $110 trillion “” a 6-to-1 savings or better.

Bizarrely, the authors never point this out directly.  They are adaptation experts, so rather than focusing on the immense economic benefits of preventing catastrophic global warming in the first place, they offer up this secondary conclusion as their primary finding:

Parry and colleagues warn that this underestimate of the cost of adaptation threatens to weaken the outcome of UNFCCC negotiations, which are due to culminate in Copenhagen in December with a global deal aimed at tackling climate change.

“The amount of money on the table at Copenhagen is one of the key factors that will determine whether we achieve a climate change agreement,” says Professor Parry, visiting research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. “But previous estimates of adaptation costs have substantially misjudged the scale of funds needed.”

Uhhh, not quite.  What actually weakened the outcome of the Copenhagen negotiations is that the overwhelming majority of politicians, opinion makers, and journalists in this country (and around the world, I think) don’t get that 1) the cost of inaction is catastrophically high [and potentially beyond calculation] and 2) the cost of action is far, far lower [see also “Intro to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar“].

Oh well.  If you’re interested in why the IPCC underestimated adaptation costs, the study focuses on several areas:

  • Water: The UNFCCC estimate of US$11 billion excluded costs of adapting to floods and assumes no costs for transferring water within nations from areas of surplus to areas of deficit. The underestimate could be substantial, according to the new report.
  • Health: The UNFCCC estimate of US$5 billion excluded developed nations, and assessed only malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition. This could cover only 30-50% of the global total disease burden, according to the new report.
  • Infrastructure: The UNFCCC estimate of US$8-130 billion assumed that low levels of investment in infrastructure will continue to characterise development in Africa and other relatively poor parts of the world. But the new report points out that such investment must increase in order to reduce poverty and thus avoid continuing high levels of vulnerability to climate change. It says the costs of adapting this upgraded infrastructure to climate change could be eight times more costly than the higher estimates predicted by the UNFCCC.
  • Coastal zones: The UNFCCC estimate of US$11 billion excluded increased storm intensity and used low IPCC predictions of sea level rise. Considering research on sea level rise published since the 2007 IPCC report, and including storms, the new report suggests costs could be about three times greater than predicted.
  • Ecosystems: The UNFCCC excluded from its estimates the costs of protecting ecosystems and the services they can provide for human society. The new report concludes that that this is an important source of under-estimation, which could cost over US$350 billion, including both protected and non-protected areas.

No surprise, really, given that the IPCC lowballs amplifying feedbacks and climate impacts, too.  In fact, even this study lowballs the  potential impacts of our  current maladapter-driven  climate policy,  especially the very fat tail or the plausible worst-case scenario.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the important stuff “” the enormous benefit of stabilizing at 450 ppm “” just jump to Chapter 8, page 103, here.

The bottom line on adaptation:  I’m all for it.  That’s  precisely why I support a comprehensive climate bill,  since it is the only plausible way to 1)  pay for domestic adaptation [and  the share of developing country adaptation that we are ethically bound to provide] and 2)   have a serious possibility of limiting future climate impacts to a level that one could actually adapt to.

80 Responses to Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery

  1. Sasparilla says:

    Sorry, my mistake on the double type “again”, I misread it.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:

    Great post, Joe.

    I’d like to add another point.

    We are, today, unfortunately, living in a cultural and intellectual and political environment that basically flushes scientific understanding and reason itself down the toilet, often knowingly.

    When reason itself is killed or seen as a fifth-class citizen — and an inconvenient one at that — then the impact of arguments, no matter how accurate and well-reasoned they are, is highly diminished and perhaps entirely undermined.

    People — and seemingly growing numbers of them — are simply ignoring basic facts and basic reasoning. Somehow, a whole bunch of people have become unhinged from reality. Much of the problem stems from the media, the actions of many politicians, the breakdown in the Senate, and the resulting nonsense that tries to pretend that it’s sense.

    But, humans are highly social beings, so those cultural factors, and the actions by folks like Limbaugh and Beck and many politicians and also the broader media, DO detract from the basic thinking abilities, and views, of average members of the public. How many people these days have views on some subjects that are absolutely contradictory to the facts of the matter and downright nonsensical? LOTS!

    So, WHO is the ultimate target for excellently-reasoned fact-based arguments, such as the one presented in this post? I know that these excellently-reasoned arguments help, and I enjoy them, but if Senators are not paying attention to reason or fact, and if the Administration itself is (it seems to me) somehow not acting based on a COMBINATION of fact, excellent reasoning, and COURAGE, then what?

    I’m starting to feel that more and more people think, “To H_LL with science and fact and reason and responsibility: As long as my paycheck comes tomorrow, and as long as I look good, and as long as my political ideology and identity are not challenged, I feel alive, proud, and happy to be a wise human being!”

    I participated in the big conference call a week or two ago, during which Al Gore spoke sincerely, and I left a message on that blog, as requested, right after the call. Nobody has contacted me. I went to the 10-10-10 website, last night, and looked for the events in my area. Although I applaud the efforts of Bill McKibben and those folks, and I’m glad that he’s saying that he’s getting mad, yet the feeling that came over me when reading the descriptions of events in my area — and there aren’t all that many of them — was one of deja vu related to the big 350 day of a year or so ago. To be honest, although I’ll certainly attend and try my best, I don’t think that 10-10-10 is going to move the political or public needle NEARLY ENOUGH to move us more than a foot towards where we need to go, which is ten miles on the same scale. So, what else is happening?

    Are the top climate and energy organizations planning a summit gathering of any sort — you know, the top two people from all fifteen of the top organizations, getting together, ASAP, for a meeting of the hearts and minds and souls?? For three or (better yet) five days of focused discussion?

    Here’s a question: Does “redouble” (a term used a lot by Al Gore in the recent conference call) mean sending twice as many e-mail messages to twice as many politicians? Or, instead, does it mean thinking twice as creatively — or ideally twenty times as creatively!? I hope he meant the latter.


  3. Colorado Bob says:

    Dr. Masters really lays it out today ……… Which is pretty important, this guy got 3,000 comments on his last post :

    The Northwest and Northeast Passages are open

  4. Chris Winter says:

    It’s appropriate that this comes on the fifth anniversary of Katrina. We handled Katrina’s impacts with expensive adaptation, when we might have done some mitigation ahead of time and been far better off.

    In the larger sense, the way we deal with weather in the modern era is more and more with mitigation.

    * We don’t try to rescue people after a hurricane hits; we evacuate them ahead of time. (And we may give them plywood for boarding up their windows, etc.)

    * If a river rises to flood stage, we provide sandbags so residents can at least try to block the waters from spilling over the levee.

    * We do our best to strengthen buildings, bridges, and roadways against earthquake damage. Everyone knows this costs less than rebuilding what falls down.

    In short, our goal is to prevent damage, to the extent we can, rather than fixing the damage after the disaster hits.

    No one proposes adapting to crime, or disease, or hunger. Just as with weather, policy favors mitigation/prevention. Except in the case of climate change.

  5. fj2 says:

    Like the flip of a coin: Heads or Tails!

    Unfortunately it seems that accelerating environmental devastation caused by climate change is being perceived and somewhat “brushed off” as a “strange” apocalyptic vision . . .

    From the Scientific American September Issue 2010:

    Runaway Global Warming

    One in 2 in the next 200 years (50/50 chance)

    Destruction ranking: 3

    The ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica together contain enough water to raise the global sea levels by about 12 meters, erasing coastal cities and making refugees of hundreds of millions of people. Without a change of behavior, humankind could set into motion the irreversible melting of both ice sheets by the end of this century, say Henry Pollack, an emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and author of A World without Ice (Avery, 2009). “My particular feeling is that it’ll be touch and go as to whether we can actually achieve avoidance of Greenland and West Antarctica ice loss,” Pollack says. “The consequences of displacing so many people — the world has never dealt with something like that.”

    “Laying the Odds on the Apocalypse,” John Matson, with reporting by John Pavlus, Scientific American September Issue page 82

  6. fj2 says:

    Jeff Sachs on The Deepening Crisis

    Jeffrey Sachs in the same Scientific American September Issue address in more detail:

    The Deepening Crisis
    Failure to act on threats to global sustainability brings the world closer to disaster

    We are losing not just time but the margin of planetary safety, as the world approaches or trespasses on various thresholds of environmental risk with the human population continuing to rise by 75 million or more per year and with torrid economic growth in much of the developing world, the burdens of deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ocean acidification and other massive threats intensify.

    What deep features of our national and global socioeconomic processes cause these repeated failures? First, the risks to sustainability are truly unprecedented in their global scale and have come upon society rather suddenly in the past two generations. Second, the problems are scientifically complex and involve enormous uncertainties. Not only must public opinion catch up with reality, but key sciences must also scramble to measure, assess and address the new challenges.

    Third, although the problems are global, politics is notoriously local, which impairs timely, coordinated international action. Fourth, the problems are unfolding over decades, whereas politicians’ attention spans reach only to the next election and much of the public’s to the next meal or paycheck. Fifth, vested corporate interests have mastered the dark arts of propaganda, and they can use their deep pockets to purchase a sea of deliberate misinformation to deceive the public.

  7. Michael Tucker says:

    These recalcitrant do-nothings want no government interference of any kind. I do not see them agreeing to spend for either mitigation or adaptation until disaster strikes. The myth that we can build our way out of trouble after a catastrophe hits has to be busted. There will be no ‘bomb shelters’ for global warming. All of this happy crap about humans evolving twisted spines to live underground or whatever other evolution “strategy” these fools come up with (and I am including the ‘scientists’ at the Smithsonian who think of such nonsense) is an absurd fantasy.

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Btw. this seems very up to date.

    The “press headlines” is a daily compilation providing a general overview of international media coverage of climate change-related issues, that does not purport to be exhaustive. The information contained in the compilation is taken as is from sources external to the UNFCCC secretariat, that are freely available on the Internet

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Michael Tucker “There will be no ‘bomb shelters’ for global warming.”

    I’m pretty sure there will be shelters – but consider this. It will start once the food supply degenerates – people will find ways to harvest food – maybe in places which will evolve into shelters.

    The problem is, that the timescale for these habitat changes are of order above human imagination – though the brain creates an illusion “tricks” everybody into a deeper understanding that there will be ultimately a solution – whatever will happen, that someone else will come up with a great idea in time etc. People blandish – flattern, crunch down the abstract idea of these scenarios. Though it’s important to paint a good picture of the outcome. And actually i do not know a single movie which comes close. Movies like 2012 are hollywood and dramatic but they paint a wrong picture of super events. A flaw, luckily the human brain evolved and people sorted out science to prepare and handle such situation, but but …

    And then in history you have this arc story, which presents an ever present underlying threat of destruction, tied with humans evolving.

    Flood myth wiki:”A flood myth or deluge myth is a mythical story of a great flood sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution. It is a theme widespread among many cultures, though it is perhaps best known in modern times through the biblical and Quranic account of Noah’s Ark, the Hindu Puranic story of Manu, through Deucalion in Greek mythology or Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.”

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    “Prokaryotes Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    “The consequence is, that in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.”
    Plato’s Critias (111b)

  12. Prokaryotes says:

    “The Deluge”, from the second bay of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    “The Ogygian flood is so called because it occurred in the time of Ogyges, a mythical king of Attica. Ogyges is somewhat synonymous with “primeval”, “primal” and “earliest dawn”. Others say he was the founder and king of Thebes. In many traditions the Ogygian flood is said to have covered the whole world and was so devastating that Attica remained without kings until the reign of Cecrops ”

    “In Inca mythology, Viracocha destroyed the giants with a Great Flood, and two people repopulated the earth. Uniquely, they survived in sealed caves.”

    It has been postulated that the deluge myth may be based on a sudden rise in sea levels caused by the rapid draining of prehistoric Lake Agassiz at the end of the last Ice Age, about 8,400 years ago.

    Now starts again – just this time it is a few magnitude – more ice melt and with additional climate features.

  14. Prokaryotes says:

    Please mod post #2, thanks.

  15. paulm says:

    Clip below funny…Sounds like a pyramid scheme….!

    Global Warming ‘Alarmist’ Heidi Cullen ‘Refrightens’ Stephen Colbert

  16. paulm says:

    This Is the Hottest Year Ever, and the Climate Catastrophe Has Begun

  17. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Good, we are finally starting to discuss adaptation. When people finally realise the costs of adaptation, mitigation does not seem as bad.

    At the very least, we should stop building long term assets on short term places. We do not know with any accuracy how fast the sea will rise, but we do know it will rise a lot and keep rising. The higher the better for new expensive infrastructure. If we need a new port, then build it so we can raise the wharfs because you know it is going to be necessary.

    Some places will not be savable, doomed to see one adaption plan after another washed away. Plans should be in place for the Next Katrina.

    Suffering is already inevitable, why are making sure it will be so very bad?

  18. Aaron Lewis says:

    If CO2 goes to levels that it has not been for 800,000 years then the atmosphere will be trapping more energy than is has been for that period and the weather system will be driven by the most intense energy flows of that period of time, and we can expect weather that has not been seen in that period. ( Any structures designed to withstand (only) 100 or 1,000 year return event weather can be expected to fail. The nuclear repositories designed to withstand 100,000 year return events can be expected to fail.

    Weather will be so unpredictable that we can kiss agriculture goodbye. What good are seed banks against 800,000 year return event floods and droughts? Oops, looks like we should actually be costing out adaption for 15 million year return event weather.

    If we do not develop and implement a Plan A, Mother Nature will implement Plan B. Mother Nature’s Plan B will include floods, that like Noah’s Flood, will get rid of all the sinners.

  19. Dave E says:

    Hope people listen to this, however, government failure now doesn’t necessarily mean more government control in the future–possibly it just means government failure, period. Will our government be any more effective in dealing with future crises than the Pakistan govenment is now? Certainly the example of Katrina does not bode well, especially if the “Republicans” (if they can still be called that, rather than something somewhat further to the right) are once again in power–and even that assumes we still have a viable government. I just finished reading “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” by Jame Lovelock and his idea of adaptation appears to be the migration of the billion or so people left after the crash to areas where they may be able to support themselves. Certainly we would be well advised to do anything we can to avoid that.

  20. Dave E says:

    #5 (fj2)–I saw the rating of runaway global warming in Scientific American and was puzzled how they managed to rate it at 3. They seem to be only considering the displacement of people as a result of sea level rising. It seems to me that mass starvation as a result of failures of food production and distribution would be a much more serious problem and given that we have already seen a likely reduction in Russia’s grain harvest of 30% it seems that the likelyhood of this happening is quite a bit higher than 1 in 2 in the next 200 years. I would think that given the course we are on, the probability is more like 8 in 10 in the next 100 years and the destruction ranking would be more like 7 or 8.

  21. nextags says:

    People blandish – flattern, crunch down the abstract idea of these scenarios. Though it’s important to paint a good picture of the outcome. And actually i do not know a single movie which comes close. Movies like 2012 are hollywood and dramatic but they paint a wrong picture of super events.

  22. Dano says:

    Adaptation means more climate refugees and that means more immy-grints. Anyone want to guess how well that will play in our enlightened society?



  23. Omega Centauri says:

    I think your point number five runs in reverse. Maybe its just that I’m so fed up with so much of humanity, that I welcome seeing the guilty receive their comeupence. In any case the one good think about adaptation, is that the smart diligent people will be the ones to benefit from it.

    And, in some cases, adaptation and mitigation can be combined. I have made my house so that it requires a lot less energy to keep cool. This is both mitigation (reduction of carbon footprint), and adaptation, reducing my vulnerability to hot weather. People are more likely to invest in adaptation, because they have control. If we can combine the two, then at least we are getting somewhere.

  24. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”

    While I’ve a profound respect for Dr Holdren’s work, this statement in isolation from its context seems at best open to misinterpretation. The idea that the more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required, obscures the plain fact that without sufficient mitigation, there is no new stable equilibrium to which adaption is possible.

    That is, without the mitigation necessary to rapidly peak airborne GHGs and then to cleanse the atmosphere, and without sufficient mitigation to control and decelerate the feedbacks in the interim, those interactive feedbacks will, very probably indeed, drive global temperature and resulting climate destabilization to the point where food supplies cannot reliably be produced, anywhere.

    Given that unrelieved starvation usually kills the victim in less than four months, rather than allowing survival until a second year’s crop might be grown, the absence of food even for so short a period is something to which there is no possibility of a society’s adaption. [This assumes that a society’s terminal decline cannot be described as adaption].

    – With our global agricultural capacity already being impoverished this much by unnatural weather events, this early in the curve of timelagged climate destabilization, I’d suggest that the prospect of general starvation has already become a probable outcome of our present course, and the window for effective mitigation is being wasted.

    Thus if our mitigation effort fails in scope or in schedule to extend to controlling the accelerating feedbacks, adaption will not be an option. There is no trade off between the two without that pre-condition of successful mitigation. Moreover, without that level of mitigation, suffering is maximized.

    Local and regional adaption to conditions within the parameter of successful mitigation seems scarcely more reliable in practice. Yes, the people now facing 1,000yr floods and worse can, after the monsoon, fasten oildrums under the coops for their new chickens and tether them to trees – but they can only hope the trees have deep roots. Equally, the farmers who invest in adaption techniques for one extreme, such as the trend of intensifying droughts in Sub Saharan Africa, are liable to find that what they needed for survival was boats, as has now happened in Niger, where sheet erosion has further diminished the viability of farming. Mass destitution is starting to become commonplace from such events, accelerating the essentially futile urban drift.

    Here in Wales, at 52N and ~1,100 ft, both barley and oats and various root-crops were a standard part of farming until relatively recently, as a means of providing winter feed for the native livestock despite the short growing season. Now, despite warming often being evident in extended fauna and flora activity, the weather is so turbulent that if I’d planted the traditional crops in any of the last three years, I’d have lost the lot. We haven’t even been able to make hay since 2007.

    So in terms of adaption to optimize sustainable food production, what crops should I plant for next year ? Or should I trust that neither the global climate, nor food export bans, nor food-to-fuel diversions, nor ungoverned profiteering by food price speculators, will push the cost of bought-in feed beyond viability ? Many farms round here have already lost their rising generation to that same urban drift, and with current climate prospects, many will not endure without a sea change in society’s attitude to producing food.

    Given this intensifying low-profile disruption of global agricultural capacity, that goes largely unreported beyond the local level, I’d suggest that it is society’s attitude, and policies, and investments that are the prime candidates for adaption.

    With help I can build little reservoirs here and improve soil drainage with biochar, but controlling the ethanol boosters and the speculators that are causing starvation and bankrupting farms is society’s task, and one demanding substantial ideological adaption.
    It is national societies that must adapt by investing in young people to allow them to rebuild the degraded agricultural capacities and optimize whatever food production is possible.
    It is national societies that have to adapt by mutually investing some sovereignty in dedicating their food surpluses to a World Food Bank for governed trade to avoid export bans and prevent the predictable contagion of states collapsing in famine and unavoidably exporting their destabilization.

    Currently it seems that the major adaption society needs to make is in letting go of the idea that adaption means getting a better air-conditioning unit, or maybe raising the dykes round New Orleans. Somewhere down the road society has another think coming; to paraphrase some worthy, it’s about realizing that :

    “We must breakfast together, or we’ll likely starve separately.”



  25. Raul M. says:

    Earth Beat Radio with Daphanie
    Ysham points to many of the situations
    we face. My apologies for the misspelling.

  26. fj2 says:

    #20 Dave E,

    Yes, at first glance there seemed to be a lot wrong with the Scientific American piece and there probably is. More should be said about it. That numeric value of 3 you mention seems quite low.

    That there is a 50/50 chance that the ice sheets melt is very serious, but it seems with business-as-usual the chance in 100%.

    Describing global warming as just another apocalyptic vision is also problematic seeming to lessen the seriousness and call to immediate action.

    People have to really face up to the fact that we have to get moving.

    Those corrupting American governance and sufficient response to this emergency must get out of the way.

    And, the New Yorker article on how Koch Industries is corrupting American governance must go viral to expose profound subversive activities and disregard for human life much worse than big tobacco.

    Joe Romm’s anger in this post is well justified.

  27. Bob Horn says:

    1240 TRILLION – It would be helpful to know in figures like this – over what time period. That is a general fault in climate communications

  28. fj2 says:

    28. Bob Horn, “1240 trillion”,

    Dollar values applied lots of environmental services are kind of meaningless in the compare apples and oranges sense.

    It’s like that old cheap Jack Benny shtick when he is threatened by a mugger: “Your money or your life!”

    Of course, he has to think about it.

    Not too long ago the global dollar value of natural services was estimated to be something like 30 trillion dollars, a pure absurdity.

    It is extremely easy to underestimate the value of natural services, lots of which we do not have a clue on how to reproduce.

  29. If we can see the problems we face, if we can reasonably identify the challenges ahead, and if we fail to meet this danger, then we are defeated.

    The fault is not in our science, nor really our engineering, the fault is our failure of political will. Inaction will kill us. The fault is our failure as a species.

    Damn. So close.

  30. How about:

    “Mitigation, Migration, and Misery…”

    I like alliteration. The point being that humans will suffer all three. The only question is in what order and how balanced. Wildlife will suffer more.

    Alliteration works for “People, Planet, Profits…”, too. This triple bottom line approach, derived from the Rio Conference of 1993, is the best potential construct to explain to Republican friends that this is not about ruining capitalism, but preserving it. Read Stuart Hart’s book, Capitalism at the Crossroads. It maps out the strength of this approach in terms that Republicans used to embrace.

  31. Or,

    “Mitigation, Migration, Modifications, and Misery…”

    The “Modifications” picks up the emphasis on the costs of adaptation, but may add unnecessary complexity to what is a slogan. It is easier to remember a three-part slogan than a four-part slogan.

  32. Maybe the adaptationists think people can evolve to camel like water requirements in a generation or two? These same people may be sceptical of evolution.
    For certain they do not respect the power of Mother Nature.

  33. Prokaryotes says:

    Thermal tolerance limits Which species are most threatened by climate change — and why?

    The physiology of climate change: how potentials for acclimatization and genetic adaptation will determine ‘winners’ and ‘losers’

    The conjecture that the most warm-adapted species within a genus of marine intertidal invertebrates are likely to be most threatened by climate warming agrees with broad conclusions reached in recent analyses of terrestrial ectotherms from different latitudes

  34. Doug Bostrom says:

    Thanks for taking this up, Joe, and I hope you’ll continue to further explore “rhetorical adaptation.”

    I believe the response to the Stern Review was a great example of “rhetorical adaptation” in action. The Stern Review was much-criticized, lots of economists came out of the woodwork to chip in their two cents about discounting etc. but now, today, where’s the substantial alternative to the Stern Review? Where’s the equivalent comprehensive treatment of adaptation? Does it exist? Critics of the Stern Review spoke a lot about adaptation but once the Stern Review was safely neutralized silence closed over all the facile rhetoric about adaptation.

    The physical implementation of rhetorical adaption is Pakistan; rhetorical adaptation is real after all, in a twisted way.

    Rhetorical adaptation is also realized in other ways, such as in the financial results of the top eight petroleum companies. Each year of successful rhetorical adaptation results in another $2.2 trillion of revenue for this tiny handful of firms. That’s adaptation you can take to the bank, purchased for peanuts.

  35. Prokaryotes says:

    The endemic fauna of the Southern Ocean exhibit striking examples of this vulnerability. Many of these species have evolved for over 15 million years under conditions of extreme and stable cold temperatures. As a consequence of their evolutionary histories — and for the mechanistic factors discussed in the final section of this review — animals of the Southern Ocean are remarkably stenothermal. Many endemic species of the Southern Ocean die of acute heat death at temperatures only a few degrees above their normal habitat temperatures [–1.9°C, the freezing point of seawater, to approximately +1.8°C, the highest temperature currently found in waters around the Antarctic Peninsula (Somero and DeVries, 1967Go; Peck et al., 2004Go; Peck et al., 2009Go; Podrabsky and Somero, 2006Go)]. Moreover, many of these species have extraordinarily narrow ranges over which acclimation can occur (Peck et al., 2009Go).

  36. Leif says:

    One aspect of mitigation, adaptation equation that needs to be addressed is that while mitigation is a more cost effective approach for humanity, it is clear that adaptation is considered more profitable for corporations.

    Who will be in a better position to manage large scale adaptation as time dictates. The man on the street or EXXON, Backwater, Koch Industries etc.?

    Whereas the man in the streets has a much better chance of lifestyle improvement with wise and rational mitigation policies.

  37. Steve Bloom says:

    Don’t over-react, paulm. Windy places get dust devils a lot, and this was just an example of a brush fire coinciding with one.

    Interestingly much larger fires do have a notable effect, very possibly a significant one for climate.

  38. Steve Bloom says:

    Prokaryotes, it’s not just the heat, it’s the acidity:

  39. robert wolff says:

    As Katrina should have shown, and Pakistan shows again, “government” is always absent. And the corporations who are now running the show will see to it that there won’t be any “mitigation”
    Talk about the “cost” is laughable.
    Our survival as a species must be local adaptation, very local — forget about governments and politics and budgets. The only way has always been local adaptation.
    That is what homo sapiens excels in: adapting to ice and snow, to desert, to jungles, to small atolls.

    Most of us won’t make it. that’s all too clear.
    Of course we’ll suffer, haven’t we always?

  40. David Smith says:

    Terry @ 31 & 32 – Mitigation, modification, misery, you choose.

    Migration is a modification.

  41. David Smith says:

    The food thing concerns me. I think the notion that we, advantaged Americans, will get the first and best 25% of global food production, ahead of everyone else as we have become accustomed is is flawed. Food production problems will be local and everywhere.

    I am only an observer. One trying to grow vegetables, sustainably in my back yard.

  42. David @ 43 – Mitigation, modification, misery, you choose.

    I agree. This is the best.

    Do we know anyone who can publicize our invention and increase its use in the AGW lexicon? ;^]>

  43. catman306 says:

    Interestingly, the phrase “eat the rich” is is traceable to Rousseau, who is reputed to have said at a speech: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich…”
    -copied and pasted from a comment after googling ‘eat the rich’

    Definitely not an original idea. Neither are the Four Horsemen. Pestilence, War, Famine, Death. Nothing new about them.
    Who could have known that fossil fuel becomes like a pestilence when overused by a civilization?

  44. How about:

    “Mitigation, modification, misery, you choose.

    Modification is more expensive than mitigation. Misery costs the most in lost human potential and broken good faith partnerships.”

    For this, we have spent trillions in the Middle East defending fossil fuel interests that don’t belong to us.

    The title of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film is “Dr. Strangelove– Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb”

    We need a popular movie with that take on ACC.

  45. Cugel says:

    The libertarian “We can adapt” translates as “we can adapt as individuals”. Ask yourself (as they presumably will) “What would Ayn Rand do?”. Build a levee around your own house, and to hell with your neighbours. I think we’ll see an expanding promotion of “adaption products”, from sandbags down to free-energy pumps to keep the sea out of your basement. (The latter work by pumping the seawater into your neighbour’s basement, thus keeping the average level stable. Patent pending.)

  46. Prokaryotes says:

    Terry, Masaki Kobayashi movies belong into this category. The movie series human condition visualizes great human suffering during war.

  47. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Terry at 47 –

    “Mitigation, modification, misery, you choose.

    Modification is more expensive than mitigation. Misery costs the most in lost human potential and broken good faith partnerships.”

    Before promoting this slogan, perhaps you can explain how there is a choice between mitigation and the term ‘modification’ – that is substituted for ‘adaption’ ?

    It is predictable that, as denial of anthropogenic climate destabilization gains public recognition, the delayers will use exactly the argument the slogan affirms by pretending there is a choice between mitigation and adaption, on grounds including the lies that “mitigation is – unnecessary, too expensive, not possible, a UN plot, un-American” etc.

    These filth have been through this before, and the present state of play is merely a stage in their well tested game plan. – The fact that a majority of the public began to recognize the science on the dangers of tobacco didn’t stop them, it merely moved them on to updated lies –

    I doubt you have any interest in facilitating their propaganda with your slogan. So please reconsider: the reality is that if we do not succeed in the necessary and sufficient mitigation of GW, we face a global terminal decline as the feedbacks take over, to which there would be no adaption – let alone the innocuous-sounding ‘modification.’

    Thus the choice is not between mitigation and adaption; it is between the problem’s resolution and its imposition of terminal decline.

    If and only if a mitigation is achieved that resolves the problem does adaption become an appropriate option at the strategic level. Without the prior commitment to achieving that mitigation, the rhetoric of adaption is a lethal diversion of collective (political) effort into a very dead end.



  48. Raul M. says:

    Any nice guesstiments on the $$$ saved with
    the new huricane modeling.
    Used to be a hurricane off the coast of Fla.
    would send us to panic with us not knowing
    where it might go.
    Thank you for having very good idea of it.

  49. Leif says:

    The choice is Mitigation or toast, You choose… Terry @ 47.

    Well said Lewis, @ 50.

  50. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: ” … real adaptation, where one seriously proposes trying to prepare for what’s to come if we don’t do real mitigation …”

    Unfortunately, given the effects we are already seeing from the warming that has already resulted from the GHGs we have already emitted, “real adaptation” is already necessary even if we do real mitigation.

    And unfortunately we are demonstrably unprepared for what is already here, let alone what’s to come. Look at Pakistan and Russia.

    For that matter, look at some of the wealthiest, most developed counties in the wealthiest, most developed nation on Earth, the USA, that have been seriously challenged by “extreme weather events” like blizzards and violent thunderstorms this year.

  51. Prokaryotes says:

    How long will it take till we see these pictures at home? 10 Years, 20 years?

    UN: Pakistani children at risk of dying from disease

  52. Robert says:

    “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be.”

    Climate change is a classical “Tragedy of the Commons” problem. Rational individual choices add up to totally irrational choices for the world as a whole. For the individual the most rational choice is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible to put themselves in the most financially impregnable position when TSHTF. This means a continuation of the growth / consume / waste cycle that defines success but is the underlying cause of the whole problem.

    The problem with the quoted statement is that there is no “we”. There are a collection of individuals separated by time and space. Older individuals in the rich west will probably never experience the climate consequences of their choices. Meanwhile, children in Pakistan are dying right now from floods which are likely a direct result of extreme weather events caused by climate change.

    Climate change is a global problem and can, in my view, only be solved by world government. Until “We” includes all of us it is not a term that means anything.

  53. There needs to be considerably stronger integration between the increasing CO2 level issue and the Peak Oil (and all other fossil fuel) issue. The peak hydrocarbon people are saying we have gone through a third or half of the accessible hydrocarbons, meaning we will never more than double or triple the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels, i.e., never more than 250 additional ppm. [There is some need to worry about the limestone–>concrete path.] The peak heating people are talking about another 400 or 600 ppm in CO2.

    I am not concerned with whether you do or do not want another 200 or 250 ppm, but it is a bit different from 600 ppm. Also, if we are going to run out of fossil fuels, adaptation and mitigation will look a bit different, and a solution that deals with both problems is preferred.

    Mind you, I do not have a resolution on this question, but the level of dissonance I hear is up there with the old solar neutrino problem.

  54. Thank you, Prokaryotes, Lewis, Leif, and SecularAnimist. Very thoughtful.

    How about:

    “Mitigation, modification, misery, you choose.

    Modification is more expensive than mitigation. Misery costs the most in lost human potential and broken good faith partnerships.

    In the end, the only choices are Mitigation or Toast. Krispy Kritters.

    How do you adapt everywhere to potential hurricane force winds and surge, drought, deluge, seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers, noxious air, and the elimination of natural services on a global scale?”

    I am a PhD engineering hydrologist by training and practice, but I abandoned the profession because the gold standard for data in engineering hydrology is 100 years of record. One hundred years of record for rainfall events, drought, surge, sea level, etc., has become useless in predicting and planning engineering structures and solutions. We are in a new climate regime; all previous standards of engineering practice in hydrology are obsolete.

  55. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    George at 55 –

    The fact that you are unconcerned by the prospect of an additional 250ppmv of CO2, giving a concentration of 640ppmv, expresses neatly your obvious lack of understanding of the degree of threat this entails.

    To put it in perspective, we already have interactive positive feedback loops accelerating, some of which, such as: warming > permafrost melt > methane outgassing > warming, have the potential to utterly dwarf the entire annual anthro GHG output. The interactive feedbacks now accelerating are doing so due to the timelagged warming off around 330ppmv in the mid-seventies, i.e. a 50ppmv elevation above the pre-industrial concentration of 280ppmv.

    Your unconcern at the idea of raising that excess from the present 110ppmv to 360ppmv thus expresses your ignorance of evident climate sensitivity to GHG pollution.

    But rather than gaining just an intellectual grasp of the reality by futher studies, for the sake of your education I’d urge you to spend say two months abroad, on local rations, first helping in the unassisted remote northern area of the floods in Pakistan, and then helping in the famine camps of Niger, where millions have no aid at present in their utter distress. There’s nothing like first hand experience to really understand the scope of a problem.

    With regard to the peak oil fraternity’s turf war aspirations, I have for over five years pointed out the need for ASPO et al to provide a coherent protocol for the equitable global assurance of nations’ primary energy sufficiency once we are on the downslope of oil supply, to be incorporated into the essential climate treaty as an operational necessity. For all this would be of obvious benefit in moderating fuel price volatility, I’ve yet to see any effort made by those with expertise in peak oil to advance this integrated approach.

    Without that integration, there can be little doubt that the political destabilization due to peak oil will compound the difficulties of the necessary termination of GHG outputs under the impacts and ongoing impoverishment of climatic destabilization.



  56. Prokaryotes says:

    Terry Tremwel, #57 “How do you adapt everywhere to potential hurricane force winds and surge, drought, deluge, seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers, noxious air, and the elimination of natural services on a global scale?” ”

    Space colonization is one option for long term strategy, to abandon the failed planet.

  57. Prokaryotes, #58– Space Colonization, great idea!

    Now we just need to fit 7 Billion people into a spaceship and travel to a habitable planet.

    Better hurry! I don’t think we can quite fit 7,000,000,001 people. :)

  58. Prokaryotes says:

    Seriously this are the solutions.

    The few options “hardcore shelters”, “life boats” – so called “arcs” and the human flawed illusion of “hope” to somehow survive a 100.000 years lasting – or longer, catastrophic extinction event. Hiding inside some “bunker”, with just a small range of means to survive.

    This is now the 6th extinction event in earth history, just this time it will be unprecedented in impact, due to the tempo we initiate the climate shift. If this wasn’t enough we released a lot of recently unknown molecules to the system.

    If this wasn’t enough we still do not act – to prevent this from happening.

  59. Now that I am in business, I can appreciate the opportunity to sell “hardcore shelters” or “arcs” to all of the right-wing survivalists. Brilliant!

    I don’t think even they are so stupid as to believe me when I sell them on a 100,000-year food supply. However, imagine the huge market in “Happy Lights” to keep the subterranean residents spirits up. No one would want to be depressed about the destruction of the planet as they lived in the shelter, now would they? I hear that termites are delicious, though. Perhaps we should invest in a subterranean culinary school?

  60. Prokaryotes says:

    Or perhaps termites to power the underground shelter?

    “Termites may produce up to two litres of hydrogen from digesting a single sheet of paper, making them one of the planet’s most efficient bioreactors.”

  61. How about this for an advertising campaign?

    “Our termite farts are better than cow burps…”

    “Hydrogen is a harmless and useful fuel, but cows produce methane that contributed to getting us into these shelters in the first place.”

    I want to be the first termite rancher! I will breed champion Formosan termites. Getting to the competitions will be a brutal and potentially flammable experience. Now we are back to “Mitigation or Toast”, see how neatly that story unfolds? I still prefer mitigation.

  62. Prokaryotes says:


  63. Prokaryotes says:


    And it turns out that when hungry termites eat coal, their digestive microbes make two very useful products: methane gas and humic acid, a key constituent of rich soil.

    “We tricked them into eating coal,” the India-born entrepreneur said. “You could see their bodies turning brownish black.”

    Using the termites’ microbes, scientists and engineers with Walia’s company, Arctech Inc., have come up with a way to treat coal to make natural gas, clean water and increase agricultural yields, all without producing hazardous waste.

    “My goal is to make energy, food and water at such a low cost that it’s available for everyone,” said Walia, who has a doctorate in mineral science. “It’s doable. It’s within our reach.”

  64. Prokaryotes says:

    The company is called “Arctech” … lol

  65. IPO next week.

    /jk ;)

  66. How do we get Homer Simpson to say, “MMMmmm, Termites!”

  67. Prokaryotes says:

    Cellulosic ethanol technologies that are well developed and rival the cost of fossil fuels will thrive in the U.S., with or without long-term subsidies, ZeaChem CEO Jim Imbler said.

    “There are two types of players in the [ethanol] industry,” said Imbler, whose Colorado-based firm makes fuel and chemicals out of insect stomach bugs — those who “need” subsidies to be profitable and those who can compete without them.

  68. Prokaryotes says:

    “At ZeaChem … our goal is to compete against fossil fuels head on. And if we can produce and make things cheaper with equivalent performance, we’ll win every day,” said Imbler, who calls himself “an old oil guy” and was a former president of the Koch Petroleum Group, a leading fuels producer.

    The company says it can compete with $50-a-barrel crude oil.

  69. Prokaryotes says:

    ZeaChem does not produce ethanol directly. Rather, it converts sugar into a chemical building block called acetic acid by feeding it to microbes found in termite guts. The acid, a solvent used in making paint, reacts with hydrogen to break down hybrid poplar trees and similar cellulosic materials into fuels and feedstock for plastic and other chemicals.

  70. Prokaryotes says:

    The first commercial methanol carbonylation process, which used a cobalt catalyst, was developed by German chemical company BASF in 1963. In 1968, a rhodium-based catalyst (cis−[Rh(CO)2I2]−) was discovered that could operate efficiently at lower pressure with almost no by-products. The first plant using this catalyst was built by US chemical company Monsanto Company in 1970, and rhodium-catalysed methanol carbonylation became the dominant method of acetic acid production (see Monsanto process). In the late 1990s, the chemicals company BP Chemicals commercialized the Cativa catalyst ([Ir(CO)2I2]−), which is promoted by ruthenium. This iridium-catalysed Cativa process is greener and more efficient and has largely supplanted the Monsanto process, often in the same production plants.

  71. And now you’ve brought the discussion back to another of Joe’s recent themes:

    #70– “…Imbler, who calls himself “an old oil guy” and was a former president of the Koch Petroleum Group, a leading fuels producer.”

    Koch Industries. I wonder how much ZeaChem stock is owned by Koch.

    “MMMmmm…Termites” or at least the bugs in their guts.

  72. David Ferrell says:

    One could not agree more with Joseph Romm that adaptation alone as a response to man-made climate change is greatly misrepresented and oversold. Climate change is already happening, not something that’s going to happen next year or next century. Rather than anyone seriously “adapting,” however, we see today’s climatic extremes routinely pushing societies beyond their adaptive capacities—straining available resources, damaging crops and vital infrastructure, dislocating populations, plunging large numbers of people into poverty, exacerbating hunger and starvation, and calling into question the power of governments to cope with the situation. If we are not adapting now, how and when will we ever “adapt” to man-made climate change—especially since the world’s rich countries are chiefly to blame for it and therefore the ones who by rights should fix the problem?

    To push “adaptation” at the expense of mitigation is almost criminally irresponsible, especially when it is certain powerful people in the rich countries who are doing the pushing. The problem is that we have an uncertain knowledge of the trajectory of future change, thus an incomplete picture of what tomorrow holds. Global climate change is not a fixed target; no sooner will we have “adapted” to it than it will have moved on, necessitating that we start “adapting” all over again. We end up chronically “adapted” to what was, not what is.

    What we do know is that the climate is changing rapidly, with every decade hotter than the last and delivering new shocks—“unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse” as Wallace Broecker called them, including things that most experts had predicted would happen eventually but that no one had expected so soon. The rapid decline in Arctic sea ice is one. The other kind of unpleasant surprise is the entirely unforeseen event that no one had anticipated, like the once-in-15-millennia heat wave experienced in Moscow this year. What we could be faced with in 2100, 2050, or even 2025 might vastly exceed our adaptive capacities. Already in 2010 Pakistan is scrambling to deal with a warming-related flood disaster of vast scope that no one foresaw, that will have consequences and ripple effects lasting years and that has the potential to destabilize the country or even the region.

    The most serious issue in the short term is likely to be global food security, since both extremes (drought and flood) of today’s intensified hydrological cycle damage and destroy crops. They also damage the croplands themselves due to the cycle of alternating soil erosion by floodwaters and the baking, cracking, and turning of soil into windblown dust during the dry phase, assisting the process of desertification. Regions massively flooded in one year or series of years are starved of moisture in the next. Global agriculture is being hit by a “double whammy” in which, increasingly, crops are alternately drowned and parched in the field. What will it be in the vast Indus Valley Region of Pakistan when, next thing, the Indian monsoon fails and intense summer heat bakes the region mercilessly, destroying crops, livestock, and ultimately people who perish from a combination of malnutrition, heat, thirst, and lethal disease?

    What further surprises global warming holds in store no one knows for certain, but surprises are virtually guaranteed. The Northern Hemisphere summer of 2010 saw the first truly global heat wave in history. Next, we could see wholesale out gassing of methane from melting Siberian permafrost. Or intensification of the ENSO phenomenon wherein unprecedented deep convection in the region of the Pacific warm pool, perhaps over a period of years in conjunction with an El Niño stasis condition, leads the mean global specific humidity (already about 4% above baseline relative to 1980) to increase further and remain at the higher level. Then soaring temperatures could incinerate the world’s breadbaskets and plunge the entire world into famine. Even without those surprises, we are at the point where a warming-related succession of “bad weather years” could devastate agriculture and bring on a global food crisis that might threaten hundreds of millions with starvation and have the world on its knees. Man-made climate change is tightening the screws on us, and another few turns of those screws could break civilization’s back.

  73. David Ferrell says:

    Comprehensive climate-change mitigation—drastically cutting carbon emissions while as far as possible reining in other GHGs such as CH4, N2O, tropospheric O3 precursors, and halocarbons—should be seen as an essential form of insurance, helping to prepare us for the future no matter what that future turns out to be, especially if climate sensitivity to GHG forcing ultimately turns out to be higher than anticipated and the impacts worse than predicted, as now seems all too likely.

    Certainly, we should prepare to adapt to those impacts that are “in the pipeline” and thus foreseeable now—such as moderate sea-level rise, more intense storms, flooding, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, crop failures, famine, disease, dislocation, and mass death—but with the understanding that our emergency responses will generally fall far short of what is needed and that the losses will be huge, costly not merely in terms of lives and livelihoods but economically as well. Easily-crossed thresholds (the same thing as “dangerous tipping points”) are everywhere, not just in the large-scale responses of the climate system to long-term forcing but within society itself (since hunger and foot riots threaten the social order) and within individual lives (since extreme food and water deprivation so often mean death—as in the case of the tens of thousands of starving Pakistani children isolated by contaminated floodwaters in low-lying southern Pakistan right now).

    Continuing to neglect real adaptation (which is a necessary handmaiden of mitigation) in favor of what Joseph Romm calls “rhetorical adaptation”—“a messaging strategy used by those who really don’t take global warming seriously” and who oppose action to mitigate change—almost assures that today’s window of opportunity to deal comprehensively with the problem will close without our having taken advantage of it. Then the die will be cast; many of those living in marginal conditions will not survive the coming decades, while the wealthy will see their wealth progressively shrink and ultimately disappear. Finding enough to eat, now the concern only of the world’s most destitute, will become the preoccupation of virtually all, including those in the “rich” countries.

    Currently, climate change is a long step ahead of us. We are still at the stage of merely reacting to rolls of the climate dice, not of anticipating and forestalling the consequences. That is the work of mitigation-plus-adaptation, which helps to load the dice in our favor while helping us to prepare for those consequences we cannot forestall.

    In the face of mounting evidence of the severity and rapid progress of man-made climate change, continuing to mouth mantras such as “we can adapt,” “humans are good at adapting,” “adaptation is cheaper than mitigation,” etc. etc. is not merely blind, it is frankly stupid, since as pointed out in the preceding post we are not successfully “adapting” to much of anything. We are simply taking our hits (so far). Even New Orleans is still not protected from a direct hit by a Category 5 hurricane.

    Pushing “adaptation” at the expense of mitigation is also dishonest in that, like all denier/ delayer tactics, it primarily serves wealthy special interests by seeking to perpetuate a corrupt status quo. Worse than that, it shows callous disregard of the consequences of inaction; by rubber-stamping a “do-nothing” approach to man-made climate change, it virtually guarantees immense future human suffering.

    The truth is that we will not be able to adapt if we do not take strong mitigation steps well in advance of the time when serious large-scale adaptation becomes necessary. Climate-change impacts are becoming exponentially worse, as shown by everything from accelerated thinning of Arctic sea ice to the sharp rise in insured losses from the rising frequency of severe weather events. Having been pitched onto the dangerous curve known as “accelerating global warming,” with the earth out of long-term energy balance and the system starting to “go exponential” on us, we face what is potentially the end of the world as we know it. One of these years, or decades, if we stay on our present course of fossil-fuel extraction and burning, it won’t be just certain marginal countries or regions that are grappling with critical food shortages and other consequences of GHG-driven climate change; it will be the entire world, and the dictum “every man for himself” will have begun to apply: there will increasingly be no one to help anybody, and civilization could be crumbling. And that time, while probably not around the corner just yet, could come much sooner than anyone imagines.

    It would be the final unpleasant surprise in the greenhouse, or at least the penultimate one.

  74. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    David Ferrel –

    you write beautifully and very persuasively about this the most grim of subjects.

    If you’re not already submitting articles for publication in the broadsheet press, I’d hope that you’d consider doing so, as I think your skill with prose could well get seminal perspectives printed that are normally filtered out.

    On the offchance that you’re unfamiliar with the British press, which is the only one I know well, I’d suggest approaching the FT, the Guardian and the Independent, in that order.



  75. Leif says:

    In view of an opponent that is bigger and stronger than you and growing stronger each day and has a thirty year head start at growing even before sitting up and making its presence known to the masses…

    Just how do you adapt to the likes of the Pakistan floods or the Russian heat wave? The Pine Beetle of the west? How about Ocean Acidification? A 40% drop in the ocean food chain in 30 years. Tending toward 60% then 80% then 100% in another 30, 50 or 100 years?

    Who do you listen to when the best of international science for the last thirty plus years has been telling the people and politicians of the dire consequences of continued AGW mitigation failures?

    Now, thirty years into the Anthrocene Extinction Event the most learned men and woman in the same science implore us that the very best and least expensive adaption strategy with the very best chance of success is as simple as conservation, efficiency, and a serious WW III effort to transition to a non carbon energy economy NOW. What do the political leaders do?
    Duh… They kiss the brown spot of the vested interests of the status quo with the lame excuse of not hurting the economy!

    As many commentators have already stated: Adaptation is a crock of what ever crap you want to put into it.

    Mitigation is transitioning to Green Energy NOW…

    Guess what? Adaptation is transitioning to a GREEN ECONOMY NOW!