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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 11/10/2008

Freedman: Warming up to Adaptation

By Andrew Freedman

When he takes the oath of office on January 20th, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit a sobering climate change and energy challenge. Global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase, driving up global average surface temperatures and leading to widespread repercussions from pole to pole. At the same time, the global financial meltdown has many experts questioning whether the U.S. and other leading economies can afford to take serious action to reduce emissions, since some steps may increase short-term costs for industry and consumers in pursuit of longer term environmental and economic gains.

sealevelrise-nc.gif
With sea level rise inevitable, adaptation will be necessary to hold back the sea in order to protect coastal property. Image courtesy U.S .EPA.

While efforts to mitigate climate change impacts are likely to comprise the bulk of an Obama administration's initial climate change agenda, scientific research demonstrates that adaptation efforts will need to be high on the list of priorities as well. While mitigation refers to efforts aimed at preventing climate change from getting out of hand in the first place, adaptation means taking action to boost society's capacity to withstand climate change-related impacts, many of which are already occurring. Building seawalls in flood-prone coastal areas is an example of an adaptation measure, whereas reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants falls under mitigation.

For more on the need to adapt to climate change, keep reading. See our full forecast for the outlook through the week.

Environmental activists have been 'warming up' to adaptation as an integral component of climate change solutions. For years it was taboo to talk about adaptation, because it was feared that focusing on it would be a distraction from efforts to stop man made climate change from occurring. Recently, however, this dynamic has shifted.

In an article in the Economist in early September, for example, prominent climate change activist Al Gore said he regretted his reluctance to push adaptation efforts. "I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention," Gore said. "But I've changed my mind."

The Economist cited two main reasons for the shift. One is that scientists have become more pessimistic in their assessments of climate change, and another is that it's increasingly clear that poor countries, which have less adaptive capacity, will be hardest hit regardless of how severe climate change turns out to be. This means that they will need help adapting to impacts such as shifts in precipitation patterns and sea level rise.

A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last month, highlights the necessity of adaptation in a comprehensive approach to climate change. The study illuminates some of the difficulties that Obama and other world leaders will confront in upcoming high stakes rounds of international climate change treaty negotiations. The PNAS study, by a large group of researchers from Europe, North America and Asia, makes clear that significant climate change is likely to occur even if drastic emissions cuts are made during the next 50 years.

For the study, researchers used computer models to examine how the climate may change based on a wide range of emissions scenarios and climate policies. Each scenario depicts a different version of a future earth, with varying global population sizes and emissions.

Some of the scenarios that researchers investigated included significant increases in population and emissions, while under others; countries would take major steps to curb emissions. What makes the study different from previous projections of climate change is that, in order to make the results as realistic as possible, it included in its projections specific climate policy proposals that are already under consideration. The researchers' aim was to determine how much warming could be avoided by current mitigation proposals.

What the scientists found was unsettling. A significant amount of warming - an average minimum of 1.4 degrees Celsius, or 2.5 Fahrenheit compared to 1990 levels - would still take place even if the most stringent emissions reduction policies were to be implemented. "This value is substantially above previously estimated committed warming based on climate system inertia alone," the study stated.

In an email conversation, lead author Detlef van Vuuren, a scientist with the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, said that in the most ambitious scenarios greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced from all industrial sectors and countries starting in 2013, would peak soon after 2020 and decline significantly thereafter. Van Vuuren said under such stringent scenarios the climate would warm between 1.1 and 3.4 degrees C compared to preindustrial levels. The range reflects uncertainties in the climate system and carbon cycle, van Vuuren said. "In other words, if we are really lucky, it could be 1.1 [degrees Celsius]; but it could also be 3.4 degrees C," he said.

Van Vuuren said the study underscores the need to ramp up adaptation planning. "The main thing is too see that adaptation and mitigation are not mutually exclusive - but in fact need each other," he said.

By Andrew Freedman  | November 10, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, Government, Science  
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Comments

Mr. Freedman said, "Building seawalls in flood-prone coastal areas is an example of an adaptation measure, ..."

Marvelous. They get the beautiful house by the ocean and WE get to build the seawall for them. They get all of the reward and we fund the mitigation of their risk. Just splendid.

Maybe we should buy all of them new cars while we are building their seawall. Hybrids of course.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 10, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

There is no catastrophic man made global warming.

People need to wake up before the politicians bleed you dry. President-Elect Obama wants to bankrupt coal. Care to take a wild guess what will happen to your electric bill as power utilities try to stave off bankruptcy? No one can be so naive as to believe your electric rates will remain the same. They will double and triple prior to utilities going bankrupt. After bankruptcy there will be shortages and rationing.

President-Elect Obama admits that energy prices will be going UP. And for what? A hypothesis that has not panned out.

People need to demand more rigorous examination of the facts. The politicians are going to bleed you dry!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 10, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Q,

I thought the article by Andrew was actually refreshing. It takes us one step closer to actually measuring the economic costs and benefits of the different options, as promoted by the Copenhagen consensus. This import group of top academics has for years sought to prioritize which efforts can do greater good for humanity for the amount spent. If we start placing more emphasis on adaptation, then the relative economics of adaptation versus huge carbon cuts will become abundantly clear regardless of whether humans have caused the majority of recent warming or not.

Posted by: RMVA | November 10, 2008 12:58 PM | Report abuse

RMVA,

You make a good point and I too would LOVE to see the media actually have the type of discussion that you envision. And I agree completely with the philosophy of extracting the absolute most good per dollar spent. The idea seems so simple as to need no defense. To do anything else would be sheer madness.

But unfortunately, I do not believe that anyone in the media will fully and honestly have the discussion that you and the Copenhagen consensus would like. They will dance around it without ever doing it. And should they dare to get to close, I don't expect honest discussion of the dollars involved.

I hope that I am wrong and you will be proven right. I sincerely hope so with all of my heart.

So while we wait on that honest discussion about obtaining maximum good per dollar spent, I will attack the issue head on and attempt to interject all of the facts that so many wish to ignore.

Speaking of facts that many wish to ignore, would anyone like to take a wild guess where the observed temperatures have fallen in relation to IPCC predictions???? There are three possible answers.
1. Observations fell with the IPCC predicted range.
2. Observations were greater than the IPCC predicted range.
3. Observations were less than the IPCC predicted range.

Yes, the answer is 3, observation were less than the IPCC predicted range. But I am sure a little fact like that won't stop the true believers.

Download this pdf and go to page/slide #65 and blow it up as large as necessary. Check out how pathetic the IPCC prediction was. Just as pathetic as Dr. Hansen's prediction.

But I have no doubt that the true believers won't let a little thing like actual observations not agreeing with IPCC predictions slow them down. Can't let a little thing like facts get in the way.

But maybe we will get lucky, RMVA. Maybe we will have an in depth and honest discussion on how to spend the limited tax dollars to achieve the greatest good. I will try to be an optimist, for all of our sakes.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 10, 2008 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I seem to have ganked a link. It should read -

Just as pathetic as Dr. Hansen's prediction.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 10, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

how can one know the truth or lies? when the sponsor of this site admits bias reporting. does this not reflect the opinion of every article you folks post? "When he takes the oath of office on January 20th, President-elect Barack Obama will inherit a sobering climate change and energy challenge. Global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase, driving up global average surface temperatures and leading to widespread repercussions from pole to pole. At the same time, the global financial meltdown has many experts questioning whether the U.S. and other leading economies can afford to take serious action to reduce emissions, since some steps may increase short-term costs for industry and consumers in pursuit of longer term environmental and economic gains" what is sobering is your host's bs factor. hope you guy's got your info from a fair and balanced source and not from your host. either way it all smell's like a big ol tax increase to me for us working stiffs.

Posted by: deveinmadisonva | November 10, 2008 8:01 PM | Report abuse

RMVA - Thanks for bringing up the Copenhagen Consensus, it's highly relevant to this discussion.

The experts involved in the Copenhagen Consensus, such as Bjorn Lomborg, have said that putting money into climate change mitigation should take a back seat to adaptation. But in my column, Dutch scientist Detlef van Vuuren stated that climate change mitigation should be pursued along with adaptation, rather than an either/or approach, because if temperatures increase too much, too quickly, adaptation could become exceedingly difficult. Note his statement at the end of the column.

I'm curious, do you see a middle ground between these two seemingly conflicting views?

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | November 11, 2008 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Andrew,

Obviously there always will be middle ground. However, I tend to be very pragmatic and don't like spending money wastefully. Thus, whatever approach (or combination of approaches) yields the highest net benefit would be my preferred solution. That could include some combination of adaptation and/or mitigation. If one believes the Copenhagen Consensus figures, then adaptation is far cheaper than mitigation.

Posted by: RMVA | November 12, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

According to the Copenhagen Consensus, the top ranking environmental initiative would be "R&D in low-carbon energy technologies" and that ranks 14th behind several initiatives targeting malnutrition and diseases. Mitigation ranks #30.

Posted by: RMVA | November 12, 2008 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Andrew,

I think we both may have been mistaken somewhat about the position of the Copenhagen Consensus. Reading further into the Copenhagen consensus, on Global Warming: "Many people believe this is the world’s biggest problem and solving it should be the top priority. This research shows that even the most extreme mitigation efforts (reducing carbon emissions through taxes) would not guarantee the worst damage of warming.
This is in line with recent IPCC findings – but the paper goes further and fills in the gaps about the mixture of spending that would provide value for money. One solution it proposes is mixing adaptation and mitigation approaches with greater research and development into greener technology resulting in high returns."

Still ranked low relative to other global initiatives in terms of bang for the buck.

Posted by: RMVA | November 12, 2008 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Cool. The discussion is turning more specific. Now is where it starts to get interesting.

I am in favor of a VERY hefty budget allocation for R & D in low carbon energy technologies. My reasons are probably not the same as some, but the reason I am in favor of it does not matter. I am also in favor of slowly phasing out all existing coal fired plants with nuclear power plants.

With the exception of "That could include some combination of adaptation and/or mitigation", I don't have a problem with anything you have said, RMVA. And I think you would agree that it is hard to imagine a scenario where mitigation would be cheaper. The only affordable mitigation strategy that I can imagine is nuclear power plants. And I am 100% in favor of nuclear power plants.

But I want to be perfectly clear that just because I am in favor of R & D in low carbon energy technologies, and that I am willing to spend some money on adaptation (within reason - I don't want to fund some guy's seawall) that does NOT mean that I believe in catastrophic man made global warming. I do not.

Now that the conversation is turning towards specifics, it will be interesting to see how Mr. Freedman responds.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | November 12, 2008 7:13 PM | Report abuse

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