Fraser Forum

Shifting climate policy focus—from mitigation to adaptation

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Over the roughly 20 years I’ve studied climate policy, it’s always seemed to me that the concept of “adaptation” was never given the primacy it deserves in dealing with future climate risks. Back in 1998, When I was a newly minted policy analyst at the Reason Foundation down in Los Angeles, I wrote a brief analysis titled “Evaluating the Kyoto Approach to Climate Change.” My conclusion in that paper was:

In a net-benefits framework, implementing the anticipatory Kyoto protocol may well do more harm than good in the near term, and offer only uncertain benefits in the longer term, where uncertainties cloud our abilities to model the risks and benefits of either acting or not acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or of taking other actions intended to forestall climate change.

The lack of demonstrable benefits from an anticipatory approach given our presently available actions and uncertainties implies that, pending improved understanding of the probable impacts of climate change, policymakers should reconsider their selection of an anticipatory strategy. Instead, while keeping a wary eye out for more precise information about the risks posed by man-made climate change, this assessment suggests that decision-makers should explore more proven, or more resilient risk-reduction strategies.

Since I wrote that study, of course, we’ve seen the failure of the United Nations Kyoto protocol process over and over again. The problem is that the laser focus on mitigation means success will be stupendously expensive, and, because the UN’s favoured approach would require massive wealth transfers, it would also be wildly unpopular.

I revisited the issue around 2009, and while scientific understanding of the climate had changed, the logic of favouring greenhouse gas emission abatement over adaptation or resilience-building still made little sense from a policy perspective. In that study for the American Enterprise Institute, I concluded:

In the event that climate change does tend toward higher estimates put forward by the United Nations and other groups, it is reasonable to consider insurance options that might help deal with such climate changes. Such options might include government investment in geoengineering research, investment in research and development to advance technologies allowing the removal of GHGs from the atmosphere, and possibly the creation of a climate adaptation fund to be used when state and local governments find themselves unable to cope with a given climate change, or even to compensate others should it ultimately be shown that U.S. emissions of GHGs have caused harm to other countries or the property of other individuals.

It has long been known that certain types of risk are not suited to attempted prevention but instead must be met with the resilience needed to live with the risk. Climate change is one such risk that is, as the world is increasingly observing, virtually impossible to prevent, whether it is manmade or natural.

As efforts to mitigate GHGs fail around the world, it is long past time to broaden the tools available to us in order to make our society resilient to climate risk. Rather than remain largely focused on the quixotic effort to reduce GHG emissions or to stand athwart the stream of climate and shout “stop, enough!” we should shift the majority of our policymaking attention to an agenda of resilience building and adaptation, two areas with which governments particularly struggle. Plan B for climate resilience should consist of an aggressive program of resilience building through the elimination of risk subsidies and the privatization of infrastructure. Other subsidies and regulations that make the overall economy more brittle in the face of climate change would also be ripe targets for removal, such as those which permeate energy and water markets.

Yes, I clearly grew a bit longer-winded over that 20 years. But, finally, more leading thinkers are coming over to my point of view. A new study, High-Energy Adaptation, from the Breakthrough Institute, has joined me at the party. Their study concludes:

Politically, the mitigation approach has framed climate change as a narrow problem with a linear relation between action and impact. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophe! is a simple formula that translates nicely into bumper stickers such as “Save the Planet” or “Stop Global Warming.” It defines all action that connects to reduced emissions as desirable, and all others as bad. It specifies goals mainly in terms like parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its benefits reside in an unknowable future. In the real world, GHG concentrations are but one abstract manifestation of the complex sociotechnical systems on which humans depend for their well-being. And despite the enormous efforts expended to create a global greenhouse gas mitigation regime, the result has mostly been political divisiveness—and, so far, ever-rising emissions.

In stark contrast, adaptation to the current and anticipated climate (and not just its human caused changes) is a process of identifying multiple pathways for achieving concrete goals like reduced deaths and economic losses from disasters, more equitably distributed prosperity, stronger communities, better public health, and more access to modern energy systems.

It’s great to see more attention given to building resilience to a climate that changes constantly, whether from human emissions of greenhouse gases to the innate variability of the climate. It’s even better to see that the people at Breakthrough—life-long environmentalists, and formerly environmental activists—are recognizing the limits of GHG mitigation, and the unlimited potential of adaptation.


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