Real and rhetorical climate adaptation

Joe Romm nails the difference between real and rhetorical strategies of adaptation to climate change.

Joe Romm nails it:

The only people who will pursue real adaptation are those who understand the latest science and are prepared to take serious political action based on that understanding. [….]  But if  you accepted the science, you’d obviously pursue mitigation as your primary strategy, while using some of the proceeds from the climate bill to support adaptation.[…] Fundamentally, massive prevention plus lots of adaptation (and some misery) is much, much, much cheaper than not bloody much prevention and incomprehensible amounts of adaptation and suffering and misery.

He’s also bang on here:

Real adaptation requires much bigger and far more intrusive government than mitigation.

Can you see a decision whether to build massive levees round Miami or evacuate it being taken by the antique checks-and-balances clockwork of the US constitution?  War powers is more like it.

Romm doesn’t say so, but the third possible response to climate breakdown – geoengineering – is even less compatible with democracy, or even the current international state system. It would necessarily be an act of unaccountable and non-consensual technocratic world government, a desperate Roman dictatorship with Hannibal at the gates.

Any genuine conservatives still out there should support crash mitigation – say zero net carbon emissions in 20 years – as the only course compatible with democracy and the free market.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

36 thoughts on “Real and rhetorical climate adaptation”

  1. Looking around the worlds of economics and politics, I don’t see any force powerful enough to keep all that fossil carbon in the ground. Even a Dictator couldn’t do it.

  2. It occurred to me the other day that the GOP denial of reality was also a huge contributing factor to 9/11, as well as many of the other disasters already noted (Iraq, Katrina ….)

    Pretty soon, it will be recognized that anyone who contends that evolution is unproven or that climate chaos has nothing to do with human agency should be kept as far away from power as possible because, as they say, reality always wins in the end.

    1. It will be recognized??? Wow! There’s the most optimistic passive-voice prediction this week. Any prediction on the subject of the verb “recognize?”

  3. To engage in mitigation, you have to believe not only in the climate change itself, but also that humans are causing enough of it that mitigation measures will actually work. To engage in adaptation, you need only believe that it’s happening. In the US at least, the sets of people with these two beliefs are not congruent. Can they be made congruent? Can the millions of people who believe in a 6 day creation less than 10,000 years ago really be brought to accept human agency, given the last decade of denial? That could be a bigger challenge than either mitigation or adaptation.

  4. Can you see a decision whether to build massive levees round Miami or evacuate it being taken by the antique checks-and-balances clockwork of the US constitution?

    Why do you have to make a decision? If you can get agreement to build the levees, great. (And Florida can make that decision–no need for the Federal government to do so.) So long as the levees are unbuilt, people will leave–no one had to order Buffalo evacuated.

    1. You are right in the tautological sense of ¨adaptation¨ that includes ¨whatever bad stuff happens¨. If you define ¨adaptation¨ as ¨some course of action that maintains civilised society¨, I can´t see it happening without massive and drastic government intervention.

    2. Counterexample – New Orleans.

      Nobody dares to say the city is doomed.
      Nobody dares to do the things needed to save it.
      Nobody dares to prevent the problems that would doom it.

      1. And so it has a population that’s down 30% over the last 10 years, and the population loss is concentrated in the most flood-prone areas.

        That’s how adaptation works.

        And it doesn’t really require wide-spread understanding–just letting insurers charge more for structures close to the ocean means that if the big reinsurers (and there are less than 10 of them) think there’s a risk, the prices will reflect it–and people can think whatever they want, the prices are still actionable facts.

        1. And 1,800 people died, but hey, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, amiright?

        2. Slow attrition, turning low lying areas into ghost towns is not a useful form of adaptation.
          Do they become slums, holding the poor who can not afford to live elsewhere? What form of schools, police, emergency services get budgeted for?
          What is the critical mass of folks leaving that would then allow the state to stop maintaining / rebuilding levees?

          Adaptation by attrition may be the worst choice, in terms of human misery. If the town is no longer safe for living, then tear it down and make a park.

  5. As Sam says: Building the levees requires government on a large scale. Evacuation if they’re not built just requires people not being amphibious. Neither has to be decided at the federal level. What he misses is that your average liberal can’t imagine a decision being made, unless it’s made in Washington.

    All you really need is market pricing for insurance, (Which it takes intrusive government to prevent. and it all happens automatically.

    1. Yeah, evacuation is simple. Just abandon your house and your job and your neighborhood and light out for the territories. Move all those factories and businesses, write them all off, and go, because the country can’t get its act together to deal with the problem.

      Market pricing for insurance? How about market pricing for carbon emissions?

      What you are saying is that Miami residents, for eample, have to absorb the costs of carbon emission by a great many people who live nowhere near Miami, not to mention the costs of conservative/libertarian denialism on the issue.

      Yeah, evacuation is simple. Just abandon your house and your job and your neighborhood and light out for the territories. Move all those factories and businesses, write them all off, and go.

      1. Well, no. That’s not how it works. Evacuation is the wrong term. This is a long slow process that takes decades. Over the last 60 years or so, the US has seen a massive internal migration from the Midwest and e.g. Upstate New York to the South and Southwest. Migration from areas heavily affected by climate change to areas more mildly affected would be similar over a similar period of time. Houses and jobs weren’t abandoned. But the next generation didn’t live in them or carry them on. Miami residents will be placed by unmitigated climate change in the same position as Buffalo residents were in 1960.

        1. But Buffalo and the midwest are not unlivable. The migration was caused by economic forces of various types, and maybe – I don’t know – the attraction of a milder climate. But you could stay where you were without becoming amphibious, or growing a coat of fur.

          Even granting some ofthis,surely those who insist that coastal residents just need to pay the market price for insurance are taking an awfully narrow view of the responsibilities here.

          1. Yeah, Jim’s understanding of the situation is either chillingly callous to the loss of human life and livelihood, or he’s not thinking the situation through. The events that are going to cause people to leave, over whatever timescale they choose to do so, are going to be miniature Katrinas at best. To say nothing of the fact that sea level rise has vulnerability implications beyond the properties that are built directly on the coastline or in close proximity, which are the ones most people picture. [Read up sea level rise and storm surge.]

        2. This is a dumb comparison, because what will happen in Miami is nothing like what happened in Buffalo. Keep in mind that the important number is not the population of the city itself, but the population of the metropolitan area. Measured properly, the population of the Buffalo/Niagara Falls Metro Area barely declined at all in absolute terms. It peaked at about 1.3 million in the early 1970s and had about 1.13 million people in 2010. The decline in the population in the industrial northeast was much more a relative phenomenon than an absolute one.

          What is going to happen in Miami is very different. They are going to experience a sudden and large drop in absolute population as portions of the area become either uninhabitable or too exposed for continued living there to be unfeasible. That’s going to create a much greater set of consequences.

    2. Brett,
      Being a right-winger is no substitute for economic knowledge. Insurance markets are extremely fragile: adverse selection, moral hazard, and tail risk from the insurer’s perspective, poor information and and pay-now-sue-later from the insured’s perspective. Markets are dynamic enough so that economic activity will occur even in a fragile market: e.g., the market for psychotropic drugs, where there is no judicial enforcement of contracts, and extreme judicial enforcement of activity. But the insurance market needs a lot of government support to flourish. Obamacare, for instance, fixes the adverse selection problem of health insurance. FEMA is addressed to tail risk. Ordinary criminal and civil law addresses some moral hazard problems. And the credibility and information problems are mitigated, in large part, by conventional insurance regulation.

      1. And of course insurance companies don’t have unlimited capital. Their viability depends on the risks being uncorrelated. If I have a car accident that doesn’t mean you are more likely to have one. If my coastal property is being flooded, OTOH…

      2. The problem with the flood insurance market is not adverse selection. It’s that people want to live on flood plains, and in hurricane zones, but do not want to pay the amount it would cost to actuarially insure their decision to do so. Practically the entire state of Florida is now insured by a captive state insurer that is going to go bankrupt the first time a big hurricane hits. This isn’t a market failure in any sense, unless you think that the fact that I can’t buy a BMW for $1 is a “market failure”.

  6. What you are saying is that Miami residents, for eample, have to absorb the costs of carbon emission by a great many people who live nowhere near Miami . . .

    This is the part that gets me. Anyone who had a real commitment to the idea of property rights, as opposed to posers like Brett, would be in favor of allowing lawsuits by those harmed by global warming that would dwarf all other litigation in this country. The defendants would be everyone and the tort would be some sort of willful negligence leading to massive property losses.

    *That’s* where a truly libertarian approach would really lead to massive government and horrendous deadweight losses as the courts tried to sort out the damages. Nothing the federal government might do to mitigate the problem would come close to the chaos of allowing every individual property holder to be made whole.

    1. Be careful what you wish for. The next step along this path would be for people without children (or with only one child) to sue everyone else with more children for being the ULTIMATE cause of this mess.
      Personally I would have no problem with this — that IS the actual root of the problem. But I suspect even libertarians might blanch at that point.

      There is, of course, the other more practical point that regardless of what happens in the US, even with a libertarian takeover, that doesn’t get you to suing the rest of the world…

  7. Romm doesn’t say so, but the third possible response to climate breakdown – geoengineering – is even less compatible with democracy, or even the current international state system. It would necessarily be an act of unaccountable and non-consensual technocratic world government, a desperate Roman dictatorship with Hannibal at the gates.

    On the subject of geo-engineering, I think it’s a crock. We’ll never
    get there. They’re all techie fantasies, far-out sci-fi notions, Star
    Wars physics-style. The cheapest and most effective method of
    geo-engineering is to cut the world’s population in half.

    Just a tremendous massacre. That’s the genuinely effective
    geo-engineering: it’s fast, it commonly works, it’s been proven
    effective for centuries by lebensraum exponents everywhere, and if you
    chose the right tactics and weaponry it might even look like a big

    You don’t have to put on a fascist armband and start ranting for the
    public’s blood; an effort like that could be quite subtle and covert,
    the very opposite of showboat geo-engineering. “Mysterious deadly flu
    in the Congo? We’d better keep all our health workers right here,
    they’re badly needed in New York!”

    Nobody’s gonna sit around watching Copenhagen delegates debating giant
    phony orbital solar mirrors if the windmills in Copenhagen harbor are
    blowing over When and if it becomes obvious that we truly need
    massive, ultra-costly geo-engineering interventions, that we have no
    other choice, then somebody — likely some traumatized veterans of
    weather havoc who are full of Al Qaeda self-righteousness — they’re
    gonna cut emissions in half by cutting people in half. Mankind
    wouldn’t lack for means, motive, opportunity and eager volunteers.

    Genocide has much more proven shelf-appeal than any of these hokum
    Rube Goldberg geo-schemes. It’s by no means easy to kill off half of
    everybody, but we’ve already invented a wide variety of ingenious ways
    to attempt that, and almost all of ’em are much simpler, more rugged
    and more plausible than putting the North Pole under a tinfoil hat.

    You don’t see these Gothic issues raised in public discourse much, but
    you go hang out with some Beltway thinktank asymmetric-warfare types,
    and man, they talk this kinda stuff all the time. Kind of a Herman
    Kahn think-the-unthinkable industry. “Should the Center for Disease
    Control be scanning flu-strains for signs of designed interventions?”
    “Gee uh, maybe not, could cause panic… but if we had some
    off-the-books funding for that, that capacity could be pretty handy.”

    Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2010

    1. But the folks in Africa aren’t the guys generating all the carbon. How many Cadilac SUVs do you think they have in the Kalahari? And all three of ’em are owned by white guys on some kind of study grant.

      1. It starts with Africa. That isn’t where it ends, not least because halving the population is not nearly enough. Or, to put it differently, what’s the goal here? Is the goal to pack the maximum number of people on earth compatible with a ghastly (but sustainable) existence, or to create a world where everyone can live (sustainably) the sort of life we expect in the west today?

        I’m not interested in getting into fights with people who claim to believe that they think the American life is bad, even as they own cars, cell-phones, TVs, take frequent flights, etc. I will simply point out the empirical evidence that it is what most people want. And THAT lifestyle is sustainably compatible with maybe half a billion people.

        So back to Africa. Once society S has unleashed virus V to wipe out Africa, the logical next step is for society S’, which can do the math every bit as well as me, to unleash virus V’ attacking society S. (And heck, they may even be justified in doing so — if S attacked Africa, who is to say S’ wasn’t next on the list — SOMEONE had to have been).

  8. Can you see a decision whether to build massive levees round Miami or evacuate it being taken by the antique checks-and-balances clockwork of the US constitution? War powers is more like it.
    Other people have pointed it out in this thread, but I really don’t understand why you would include building massive levees round Miami in the same class as evacuating it. Building levees, no matter how massive, does not seem that drastic to me.

  9. James, I actually agree wholeheartedly with at least the first part of your statement. Adaptation only makes sense if you believe in the science that would also (and as a first priority) motivate mitigation. That’s why I think that public officials who get global warming (like Cuomo) will be far ahead when it comes to adaptation *and* mitigation of those who don’t (like Rick Scott).

    But I also agree with the commenters, and Matt Kahn, that a lot of adaptation *in wealthy countries* will take place incrementally and through private actors responding to incentives. All it will take to make coastal Staten Island livable for several decades is for insurers not to write policies on houses near the seashore that aren’t on stilts. (If you want a model, look at Malibu. Houses that used to be behind a beach are now over the water. And still standing.)

    It’s poor countries that are really in trouble. People in Bangladesh don’t build in the flood plain because they can’t calculate risks. They build their because they are calculating risks–and can only afford to build where risk is high. Not to mention that withinin several decades a huge proportion of the country will flood regularly.

  10. James, as you are the go-to guy on climate change for the RBC, a question: I seem to recall reading (somewhere) that the melting of the Arctic ice cap meant that the jet stream, which used to meander relatively gently across the middle latitudes, now produces much more volatility in temperature (and precipitation?) because its north-south excursion is much greater, picking up warmer, moister weather in its southern swing and colder weather in its northern swing. Is this just a theory, or is there evidence for this?

  11. The stilts thing is not going to work out. The Malibu houses on stilts were originally built that way to allow the very rare big wave to come up under the deck (and because it is rather difficult to put in a basement or foundation on the beach). Now, the houses are having the water come up under house a whole lot of the time, undermining the supports and… crash (or perhaps, “splash.”). See, for example,,0,7928541.story

  12. I don’t agree with “the third possible response to climate breakdown – geoengineering – is even less compatible with democracy, or even the current international state system.” The most common geo-engineering proposal consists of spewing S=2 into the Stratosphere. This is unilateral and undemocratic and just like spewing S02 into the troposphere as we do already (and I the proposal is 5tg in addition to the US’s current 10 or bringing, say US S02 emissions back where they were before cap and trade).

    Changing the world by emitting gasses has been standard practice for millenia. Doing it on purpose no more requires Hannibal at the gates and a dictator than doing it from carelessness. I mean we already emit C02 without consulting the rest of the world. Why is S02 (which we also emit) so different.

    The problem with S02 to the stratosphere is that it will cause reduced precipitation in, among other countries, India and China. From the human point of view, that is the most important climate issue. That it will be unilateral if it happens is just the frost on the cake. OK the fact that the harmed countries have nuclear weapons makes the geopolitics a bit trickier, but the real problem is the rain.

    I support spew the S02 geo-engineering anyway, along with a carbon tax, adaptation, the Kleiman plan to send agricultural waste down the Mississippi, and everything else anyone can think of, because all together they won’t be enough and surely won’t be too much.

    Also uh not sure that the case of naming a dictator to fight Hannibal is the best metaphor for desperate last minute action when you are in such a mess that normal delay has become intollerable. The dictator Maximus Fabius was famous for action through inaction and basically waiting Hannibal out. This approach will not work so well with climate change.

  13. Who are these “real conservatives” whereof you speak? Haven’t seen any of those around in a generation or so.

    Meanwhile, I think, a large chunk of the current right wing looks at New Orleans-style scenarios as a feature rather than a bug. The destruction of coastal concentrations of wealth means a chance for enormous profits from people who know how to take advantage of disruption, and placing tens of millions of poor minorities under martial law sounds like an unimaginable birthday present. The reality would be nothing like that, but in the minds of people who can speak with a straight face about Kenyan socialism that’s not really an issue.

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