When I first became interested in global warming ten years ago what puzzled me at once was the insistence on ‘mitigation’ — reducing or abolishing carbon dioxide emissions — and the almost complete indifference to ‘adaptation’ — preparing in advance to deal with droughts, floods, high temperatures, and all the rest of the climate possibilities. We seemed to be doing something in that direction, but hardly enough.
Professor Bob Carter, one scientist that has been sceptical from the beginning of the global warming scare, suggested long ago that Australia adopt and adapt the New Zealand civil defence management system, which is built around the ‘4 Rs’ — Reduction, Readiness, Response, Recovery. As any Australian of mature years knows, we are prone to natural ‘disasters’, and our SES system is one form of our own preparedness.
But the IPCC has never been interested. For it the key thing has been to get carbon emissions down before disaster overwhelms us. As I have argued many times, this strategy has three weaknesses: it is practically unfeasible to do it quickly, it cannot be done on a global scale, and the outcome of whatever any country does will have no discernible effect on temperature there. Given ‘the pause’, now approaching 18 years on one measure, one could also argue that there is no immediate need to do anything at all in the mitigation department. Isn’t it time, for example, that we built some more ‘flood-proofing’ dams?
Well, the IPCC has now given what seems to be a cautious go-ahead to adaptation. According to Chris Field , one of the co-chairs of the new report,
The really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change… Climate-change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried. Governments, firms, and communities around the world are building experience with adaptation. This experience forms a starting point for bolder, more ambitious adaptations that will be important as climate and society continue to change.
Dr Field also declared: The natural human tendency is to want things to be clear and simple. And one of the messages that doesn’t just come from the IPCC, it comes from history, is that the future doesn’t ever turn out the way you think it will be… being prepared for a wide range of possible futures is just always smart.
Does this mean that the IPCC is giving up on ‘mitigation’. No. But, at least it seems to me that, the IPCC may well be coming to the view that if it is to survive, it will have to have more than the mitigation arrow in its quiver. If I am right, then we can expect more IPCC papers on how best to adapt. Judith Curry devoted her 30 March blog to this subject, which drew 787 comments at last count. She cited an article by Andrew Lilico she had read in the Telegraph (London), which put forward the following:
… the global GDP costs of an expected global average temperature increase of 2.5 degrees Celsius over the 21st century will be between 0.2 and 2 per cent. To place that in context, the well-known Stern Review of 2006 estimated the costs as 5-20 per cent of GDP. Stern estimates the costs of his recommended policies for mitigating climate change at 2 per cent of GDP – and his estimates are widely regarded as relatively optimistic (others estimate mitigation costs as high as 10 per cent of global GDP). At a 2.4 per cent annual GDP growth rate, the global economy increases 0.2 per cent every month.
So the mitigation deal has become this: Accept enormous inconvenience, placing authoritarian control into the hands of global agencies, at huge costs that in some cases exceed 17 times the benefits even on the Government’s own evaluation criteria, with a global cost of 2 per cent of GDP at the low end and the risk that the cost will be vastly greater, and do all of this for an entire century, and then maybe – just maybe – we might save between one and ten months of global GDP growth.
Whereas previously the IPCC emphasised the effects climate change could have if not prevented, now the focus has moved on to how to make economies and societies resilient and to adapt to warming now considered inevitable. Climate exceptionalism – the notion that climate change is a challenge of a different order from, say, recessions or social inclusion or female education or many other important global policy goals – is to be down played. Instead, the new report emphasised that adapting to climate change is one of many challenges that policymakers will face but should have its proper place alongside other policies.
Our first step in adapting to climate change should be to accept that we aren’t going to mitigate it. We’re going to have to adapt. That doesn’t mean there might not be the odd mitigation-type policy, around the edges, that is cheap and feasible and worthwhile. But it does mean that the grandiloquent schemes for preventing climate change should go. Their day is done. Even the IPCC – albeit implicitly – sees that now.
It’s all too soon to say where this is going. But it would seem to me that the Abbott Government could pick up the drift and win a brownie point or two by talking sagely about ‘adaptation’ — and quote the IPCC in so doing.