Real Adaptation Is As Politically Tough As Mitigation, But Much More Expensive And Less Effective At 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.”

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:

  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 Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts).
  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 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.)
  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 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:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 10°F (or more) over much of the United States
  • Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest and many other regions around the globe that are heavily populated and/or heavily farmed.
  • Sea level rise of some 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity.
  • Much more extreme weather
  • Food insecurity — the increasing difficulty of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.
  • Myriad direct health impacts

No wonder climate expert Kevin Anderson (see here) has said inaction on climate change is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level).”

And 7F isn’t close to the worst case:

So 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 higher in 2100 and then rising 6 to 12 inches 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 in 2009, their 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.

Strangely, the authors never point this out directly. 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 serious carbon price, 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.

This post is an update.