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Resolved: Adaptation should be the most urgent response to Climate Change.
Resolved: Adaptation should be the most urgent response to Climate Change.
There are several definitions of adaptation in this context but, broadly, it is the idea that climate change is a reality, and that changes in human and natural systems will allow humanity to both minimize the damage it does and also benefit from some of those changes. For example the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] defines it as “actions taken to [allow] communities and ecosystems [to] cope with changing climate conditions”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] has a slightly different nuance; “adjustments in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.” The UN Development Program prefers; “A process by which strategies to moderate, cope with and take advantage of the consequences of climatic changes are enhanced, developed, and implemented.”[i]
For all of the slight differences in tone – “actual or expected” as opposed to “consequences” for example – the underlying intent is still the same. It is predicated on the views that
1) Climate change is or soon will be a reality;
2) Efforts to prevent it will have been left too late.
There are difficulties with both of these presumptions as there are sizable chunks of the public policy community worldwide would not accept either of them. Although it is worth noting that (2) is less of a hurdle – actions to, for example, control future carbon emissions do not exclude efforts to adapt to the consequences of those that have already happened or what is predicted will happen. However, in the words Paelkhe, writing in the Seventies, if we accept that it’s too late to prevent environmental problems, “why not barbecue the last polar bear with the last pint of oil?”
Adaptation to so seismic a shift is likely to have enormously far-reaching consequences covering migration, agriculture and its supporting industries, logging, fisheries, the very survival of low-lying and island nations and other aspects of basic life. In addition there are significant health implications as climate affects not only virology and immunology but also tolerance to humidity and shifts in, for example the malaria belt. All of that is before changes in basic chemistry such as the salinity of the oceans and the implications of that for the basic chemistry of the atmosphere.
However, Opposition also face a considerable challenge. If prevention is prioritized over adaption; how can that be made to work? Efforts so far to control global carbon emissions have proved singularly ineffectual[ii]. With the growth of the BRIC economies disproportionately reliant on carbon fuel sources – notably the dirtiest of them all, coal – that problem looks set to increase. How, in practical terms, can policy address that need?
|Points For||Points Against|
|Prioritising prevention hasn’t worked||Some of the required adaptations are impossible|
|The shifts required will take decades to plan and implement, they are already urgent||The focus on prevention should not be diluted|
|The necessary research alone will take time and should be a priority||Increasing oil costs make this the best time to be focussing on alternative energies|
|Adaptation is likely to hurt poorer nations|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Prioritising prevention hasn’t worked
It is a demonstrable fact that efforts to reduce carbon emissions haven’t worked. Despite the conferences, the treaties and the pledges; global carbon emissions continue to rise – up 6.7% from 2009 to 2010.[i] The world’s largest economies continue to be the worst offenders and, with the BRIC economies joining their ranks, that look set to continue.
If you’ve been trying something for over 20 years with no notable success, then it seems sensible to try something else.
Added to which, many scientists, such as James Hansen,[ii] believe that a tipping point in the climate and broader ecosystem is imminent – with some suggesting that it has already been passed[iii]. We need to accept that Climate Change is not something that may happen in the future but something that is happening now. Extreme weather events are happening now, glaciers are melting now; the climate is shifting now, as is shown for example by the sea ice levels which in 2012 were at their lowest extent since we started monitoring it, the previous lowest extent was only set in 2007.[iv] Managing that reality to mitigate its impact on humanity and the rest of the ecosystem is the most responsible thing to do[v].
[i] Rogers, Simon, and Harvey, Fiona, ‘Global carbon emissions rise is far bigger than previous estimates’, guardian.co.uk, 21 June 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jun/21/global-carbon-emissions-record
[ii] Hansen, James, ‘Tipping point: Perspective of a climatologist. In State of the Wild 2008-2009: A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands, and Oceans.’ E. Fearn, Ed. Wildlife Conservation Society/Island Press, pp. 6-15. http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abs/ha04310w.html
[iv] Doyle, Alister, and Chestney, Nina ‘Arctic summer sea ice might thaw by 2015 – or linger for decades’, Reuters, 30 August 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/08/30/us-climate-arctic-idUKBRE87T0LH20120830
It’s been apparent from Rio onwards that ensuring action would require both patience and an acceptance that governments and industry would only genuinely get on board when Climate Change became an emergency rather than a distant theory. That is now starting to happen in a million ways, small and large. Changing the focus to another 30 years project now would just allow for another set of delays and missed targets.Improve this
The shifts required will take decades to plan and implement, they are already urgent
Transforming entire sectors of the economy and the resulting shifts in patterns of migration, training, employment and resourcing will be both complex and complicated and require a massive logistical effort. Waiting until the world’s grain baskets are already dustbowls or Manhattan is underwater is simply unrealistic.
Instead, nations individually and collectively need to plan and begin to implement the necessary changes now. Even the process of achieving political agreement on some of the likely changes could take decades. 2050 has been widely seen as the date when the ravages of Climate Change will be all too obvious; 30 years is no time at all in diplomatic and industrial terms[i].
The financial costs of inaction on Climate Change have been estimated at $74tn, however that pails into insignificance with the broader human costs[ii]. Against that the World Bank has estimated that the costs of adaptation at a wildly varying but still relatively modest $4bn - $109bn a year[iii].
Climate Change, by dint of the complexity of the model, is virtually impossible to plan for. Developing an adaptation regime would simply create an ever-changing model while removing necessary intellectual and economic resources from the prevention regime that is already in place. This would not only mean transferring research resources there is also government and regulatory activity as well as industrial compliance structures and other outlays.Improve this
The necessary research alone will take time and should be a priority
There are significant research challenges that need to be addressed in terms of envisaging what an adaptation regime would look like. For example how adaptation would tie into to other types of change – social, economic, demographic, etc. Answering these questions, alone, will take time but are a necessary precursor to building a realistic adaptation routine[i].
The urgency here comes from the fact that it will take time to establish new systems to work on this at an international level. One of the difficulties demonstrated by the experience of initial studies of climate change was that it needed to be conducted on a global scale, frequently involving complex and expensive modeling systems. There are several backstages to establishing this and the majority of relevant academics are currently working on prevention models rather than designing an entire new framework of prediction.
Developing such frameworks will require the focus of governments, in terms of research funding policies and agreeing enforcement and delivery models.
Given the choice between building a framework that can work and focussing on one that hasn’t, the choice seems to be fairly obvious[ii].
This argument is predicated on the idea that it is possible to build a model that would allow for adaptation. In the light of some of the challenges currently posed by Climate Change that seems improbable. Without a clearer idea of what adaptation would look like or what it could even potentially achieve, making it a priority against something that can be shown to work seems reckless in the extreme.Improve this
Some of the required adaptations are impossible
In some Climate Change scenarios – for example, a diminution of global oxygen output as a result of the effect of desalination resulting from melting polar caps or enforcing reduced consumption of resources through their more equitable distribution – are either impossible in biological or practical terms[i].
As a result, the only available option is reducing the carbon footprint of humanity as a species. Overwhelmingly, scientists agree that this is the only solution. Adaptation is, in reality, an attempt to hide from ‘an inconvenient truth’. Nobody likes being told that there is simply no way around the problem but that is the reality.
Some adaptations will, no doubt, happen naturally as people adjust but the focus of governments should remain on prevention.
Opposition concedes that adaptations will happen as individuals respond to climate change, it is only fair and sensible that governments should make sure those changes happen in a managed fashion. To take one, small example; the increasing unwillingness of insurers to accept the risks of flooding for homes and businesses in some parts of the world requires a governmental response; many of those who bought homes that may be affected by flooding bought that property before they would have known about climate change.Improve this
The focus on prevention should not be diluted
It has taken three decades to drag most polluting business and many governments – and some are not yet there – to this stage of accepting that mitigation is necessary. Many remain unwilling to accept reality and are only making those grudging efforts they have undertaken because of the full force of global public opinion and the efforts of some governments and international bodies. Moving that focus simply allows those who weren’t happy about the challenges of carbon reduction to go back to the bad, old days.
Equally it allows industries such as coal off the hook at the very point when the pressure is really starting to count[i]. Some of the myths about clean coal or the supposedly environmental sensitivity of uranium mining are now sinking into the public consciousness – saying ‘let’s do this instead’ would run the risk of a return to business as usual.
The mono-focus on prevention has, effectively, blinded the world’s governments to the real issue – that climate change is happening and will continue to happen. That is a process that will require great adaptation on behalf of everyone. As with any significant change, it needs to be managed. Economies and societies have been dramatically altered in the face of significant changes such as warfare. It’s time to face up to that reality.Improve this
Increasing oil costs make this the best time to be focussing on alternative energies
The pressure to invest in carbon-light forms of energies is starting to bear fruit as costs of oil make them financially viable. There are still enormous infrastructural costs but allowing carbon energy-based sectors to shift over to either shale gas or oil by taking the focus off prevention will mean that these incredibly polluting fuels are used – as the infrastructure is already in place and it is more financially palatable – rather than keeping up the pressure in favour of carbon reduction, energy efficiency and the growth of renewables. Germany and Denmark have proved that an effective renewables market can be the focus of a mature economy but that only happened with sustained political pressure. Scotland is moving in that direction as are some US states and other nations. Removing that pressure now would be a huge missed opportunity.Improve this
Renewables always looked like being ‘too little, too late’ and that now appears to be the case. Carbon based energy sources remain, massively, the major players of global energy production and that looks set to continue to be the case. It is time to take a mature response to that reality and manage the problem rather than pretending that a magical solution is going to be produced in the form of technological breakthroughs in nuclear or other energy technologies.Improve this
Adaptation is likely to hurt poorer nations
Pollution is a global problem, with the greenhouse gas emissions of richer nations impacting on their poorer neighbours. Adaptation would most likely take place on a predominantly national basis, allowing those with the resources – built on their historical use of carbon energy – to find ways to adapt to some of the problems caused by Climate Change, while poorer nations are left without the capacity to do so.
Only a global focus on combating the basic causes of climate change will tackle the problem in a fair and equitable way, as richer nations cut back on their carbon-enriched lifestyles while developments in technologies offer benefits to the world as a whole rather than those who are already carbon rich as a result of geological or historical accident[i].
Seeing the fight against Climate Change as some panacea for international inequality has always been a non-starter. The rich nations are simply not going to give up their competitive advantages in terms of production. However, a sensible global response to issues such as the migration likely to result from some of the outcomes of changing climates, might mitigate some of their worse excesses.Improve this
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