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.”
Frankenstorm Sandy, like Katrina, 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. The latter 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:
- 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).
- Real adaptation without very substantial mitigation is just a cruel euphemism (see An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts).
- 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 Dust-Bowlification) 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? (See Don’t believe in global warming? That’s not very conservative.)
- 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?
- 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 back in 2009 and 2010. There isn’t really much point in spending tens of billions of dollars to plan for, say, a sea level rise of several feet if you don’t accept that is 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 viable than real mitigation — and arguably it’s less viable since at real mitigation has multiple co-benefits, including less urban air pollution, improved health and productivity, sharp reductions in oil imports and so on.
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 dozens of recent studies make clear we risk if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path: