The L.A. Times has brought to prominence (and fallen for) what I call the “adaptation trap”:
The adaptation trap is the belief that 1) “it would be easier and cheaper to adapt than fight climate change” [as the Times puts it in the sub-head] and/or 2) “adaptation” to climate change is possible in any meaningful sense of the word absent an intense mitigation effort starting now to keep carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 ppm.
G. Gordon Liddy’s daughter repeated that standard denier/delayer line in our debate: Humans are very adaptable “” we’ve adapted to climate changes in the past and will do so in the future.
We know that fighting climate change — stabilizing below 450 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide — has a low cost, according to IEA, IPCC, McKinsey and every major independent economic analysis (see “Intro to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar“).
What is the cost of “adaptation”? It is almost incalculable. The word is a virtually meaningless euphemism in the context of catastrophic global warming. That is what the deniers and delayers simply don’t understand. On our current emissions path, the country and the world faces faces multiple catastrophes, including:
- Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land “” some 10°F over much of the United States
- Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
- Permanent Dust Bowls over the U.S. SW and many other heavily populated regions around the globe
- Massive species loss on land and sea “” 50% or more of all life
- Unexpected impacts “” the fearsome “unknown unknowns”
- More severe hurricanes “” especially in the Gulf
I think Hurricane Katrina gives the lie to the adaptation myth. No, I’m not saying humans are not adaptable. Nor am I saying global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, although warming probably did make it a more intense. But on the four-year anniversary of Katrina “” and the three year anniversary of Climate Progress’s initial launch “” I’m saying Katrina showed the limitations of adaptation as a response to climate change, for several reasons.
First, the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to Hurricane Katrina, but I’m certain that every last one of them wishes we had prevented the disaster with stronger levees. The multiple catastrophes “” extreme drought, extreme flooding, extreme weather, extreme temperatures “” that global warming will bring can be suffered through, but I wouldn’t call it adaptation.
Second, a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to “adapt” New Orleans to the threat. We didn’t make the levees able to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a category 4).
Third, even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.
If we won’t adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans “” since sea level from climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level? And just how do you adapt to sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, which is the fate we risk by 2100 if we don’t reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends soon. Climate change driven by humans GHGs is already happening much faster than past climate change from natural causes “” and it is accelerating.
The fact is, the deniers don’t believe climate change is happening, and the the delayers don’t take the climate change impacts above seriously, so they don’t believe in spending serious money on adaptation. The Center for American Progress has written an important paper on hurricane preparedness, which is a good starting point for those who are serious about adaptation.
But don’t be taken in by heartfelt expressions of faith in human adaptability. If Katrina shows us anything, it is that preventing disaster would be considerably less expensive “” and more humane “” than forcing future generations to “adapt to” an unending stream of disasters.
Finally, a major new study finds the cost of adaptation — and the costs of inaction — are far, far higher than anyone thought. Duh! Since it provides strong economic and analytical support for my analysis here, I will blog on it soon.