Climate Change: Get Ready to Adapt!

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s recent Washington Post op-ed “Make Climate Change a Priority” warned that “global warming imperils all of the development gains we have made”.  Jim Kim drew on a recent World Bank report that points to the possibility for global temperatures to rise by 4 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century, with severe natural, economic and social impacts.

Jim Kim’s call is all the more urgent given how grim are actual trends on efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  Growth in world carbon emissions from energy use in the 2000s more than tripled compared to the 1990s, averaging 3 percent a year.  After repeated failures in negotiations, the goal of a global agreement on mitigation feels to be even further away today than 20 years ago. With current battles over fiscal policy, U.S. government spending on energy R&D is expected to fall rather than rise in coming years.  Many experts have concluded that the aim of keeping global temperature increases down to 2 degrees Celsius or less (roughly equal to an atmospheric concentration of equivalent carbon dioxide of 450 ppm or less) is now simply no longer feasible.  A study by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum found that in most cases its models simply could not solve for a 450 ppm scenario.

So, not only is a 4 degree rise possible, the burning question is just how far we will actually exceed 2 degrees and get close to or exceed 4 degrees.

I draw three conclusions from this scenario.  First, as Jim Kim stressed in his op-ed, there is an urgent need for action on mitigation outside the global negotiating framework, especially among the six biggest emitters.  Second, let’s not fall under the famous definition of insanity attributed to Einstein, of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  In other words there is also a need for fresh “blue sky thinking” about why global negotiations are failing and how we might be able to structure approaches that are more “incentive compatible”, to use the economics jargon, including how to foster massive R&D into new energy technologies that are both clean and cheap.  And lastly, given that substantial temperature increases are already “baked in the pie”, we must figure out ways to protect human welfare and development gains, by helping poor people and countries adapt to climate change.

Fortunately, adaptation should be easier to do, because it is usually not subject to the “environmental externality problems” that hamper mitigation – because it is mostly in people’s self-interest to adapt to climate change, regardless of what others are doing.  Farmers, for example, will shift to different crops and growing methods that are better suited to new climate conditions.  People will continue to shift out of agriculture – the most vulnerable sector – into industry and services, and from the countryside to cities, which – as Matt Kahn argues in his book Climatopolis – are better able to adapt to extreme shocks of all kinds. International trade itself is an adaptation mechanism, as agriculture possibly shifts to more northern climes, and as developing countries in the tropics gain comparative advantage in manufacturing and services. Perhaps most important, we can also expect ingenious human beings to innovate and find new and better ways to adapt.

So, can we just sit back and complacently twiddle our thumbs?  Of course not!  The more extreme and catastrophic climate change gets the more there is a possibility that it could overwhelm human capacity to adapt.  So mitigation remains an urgent priority.  But even outside that extreme scenario, there is an important policy agenda to deal with all sorts of market and policy failures that can hamper people’s – especially the poor’s – ability to adapt, a policy agenda which is usually good for development anyway.  Poor farmers, for example, often lack access to the credit that would help them change their crop mix and growing methods.  Poor economic policies can subsidize overly capital (and energy!) intensive technologies in industry, reducing unskilled job opportunities in the cities. Trade restrictions can hamper people’s ability to access new adaptive technologies from abroad, as well hampering people’s ability to adapt to climate change through trade.  Investments in adaptation public goods – for example high quality meteorological forecasting and early warning systems – will become increasingly valuable.

Adapt and mitigate, mitigate and adapt – we must walk on both legs to deal with the challenge of climate change.

3 Responses to "Climate Change: Get Ready to Adapt!"

  1. Shelby   March 3, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    First, what this article is proposing is quite ridiculous. Kyoto is an adaptation that has been ignored because of some company and ignorants claiming to be experts (economist for instance). There has been an incredible fraud created so there would been a debate over climate change. Remember that it is an 100 years old theory, confirmed in the 70's and largely accepted by the scientific community during the 80's. The so called doubt has its origin in a few companies such as exxonmibile ford gm, etc. wich were manifestly going to have to spend money and lose money to "adapt" themselves under an international climate change regulation.
    Second, I agree about the discussion and the importance of looking for those who do not want to admit climate change, but it is also impotant to make those responsible for liying under their "scientific knowledge". They lied to the public and to governments where most of them never published any valuable work on the matter. So asking to adapt ourselves, wich could have been only possible trough international policy, in non sense if we do not hold the criminals responsable for their crime. Third, in what is being proposed here I sense an hypocrite autor, not metionning how this adaptation woild have to be radical. Can you imagine a world with Florida last summer temperature with one and two heavy storm like Sandy on major cities? How can you adapt yourself to that? And those are the senarios where we do not mention nuclear plant and other high risk infrastructure. This stupid adatation the author is speaking about is past us. WE NOW HAVE TO MAKE CHOICES. The kind a family has to do at the end of the month knowing something won't be paid. To adapt ourselves would have take 15-20 years (how old is kyoto again). Yes we still can, but we have to know that we are close to the point of no return.
    Again the article is leaving the reader with the impression that adapting yourself does not mean to drasticly change your ways… wich is the case. The articles lacks the importance of politics, putting everything on the individual. After claiming there was no certainty of global warming here comes those clowns saying we should adapt ourselves by avoiding to precisely tell us how. Well people let me tell you this those able to adapt to climate change will be the rich, because poor and middle class people can not afford to leave their home. And believe me it is going to happen. RICH CAN BUY A HOUSE ANYTIME… CAN YOU? And wo are those who claimed climate change wasn't sure…? Just by asking the question we know the answer… We're not doomed, but don't expect 2040-50 to be peacefull. We are going to regret this era of stupidity.

  2. Dr. Glen M. Green   March 5, 2013 at 6:44 am

    I think it's important to remember that 4 degrees C of warming would then be halfway to a warming of 6 degrees. What is 6 degrees of warming like? 55 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (and during the Permian extinction) we had a rise of that order of magnitude. What was the world like then?

    All the ice of the world melted and sea level rose 70m above present sea level. Antarctica had tropical moist conditions like those in the tropics now. Most of the rest of the planet's continents were deserts (80-90%).

    But what happened to the world's ocean's was the worst of all. Water that's 6 degrees warmer will not hold dissolved gases. Imagine the ocean is like a warm Coke, it has no fizz. But in this case the oceans will lose their oxygen, so we get an ocean with no oxygen, so no animal life except maybe for some surface waters near the poles. That's a lifeless ocean as far as we're concerned.

    It turns out certain microorganisms love those anoxic conditions, those are the kind that currently live in your septic tank or in stinky black canals like you might find in some of the cities of the Philippines where I live. These canals stink like rotten eggs because one of the gases given off by these anoxic loving microbes is Hydrogen Sulfide, a very dangerous gas at high concentrations. Well, we can all put up with a stinky septic tank every five years when it is cleaned out, and people can even live next to a stinky black canal and get used to the oder, but imagine a world in which the entire belt of tropical and temperate oceans have the characteristics of those stinky black canals.

    Can we really adapt to the conditions I have described? Only if you think dying is just "adapting" to lifeless conditions!

    We, meaning all of us (and many other species as well), would all be dead for good and for ever (as happened millions of years ago), and we would have created conditions which would bring on Earth's 6th great Mass Extinction Event (we've only had five in the last 500 million years).

    In emitting CO2 in huge quantities, what we humans are doing is essentially playing around with the biggest mass killer this world has ever known, and if we make the wrong calculation it will destroy utterly everyone and everything all of us has ever cared about. There is nothing that can be imagined that is worse than these potential effects of global warming…

    So there it is…

    Would you economists give a revolver with 5 out of 6 bullets in its chambers to your 5 year old son or daughter and just hope for the best.

    Please think about it…