The Media Adapt

The Media Adapt

June 07, 2006

The cover story of the June 5th US News and World Report is about global warming, but the story is not quite the usual doom and gloom (as seen recently, for instance, in the Time cover story, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried.") <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


Instead, it dares to ask the question, can we live with global warming? Indeed, because it accepts many of the premises of recent alarmism—to the extent that it worries that global warming is so imminent mitigation cannot prevent its effects—it suggests that adaptation is necessary. Tony Blair recently said that the challenge is to ensure that "the developing nations can grow, the wealthy countries maintain their standard of living and the environment be protected from disaster." Those of us who have always said that have also always accepted that adaptation will be necessary. It is good to see the rest of the world catching up.


As the US News article suggests, many adaptation projects will be local in character. This is true because global warming isn't really global—it is having different effects around the world. Even within the United States, different regions are experiencing different effects. While the Northwest is warming, the Southeast is actually cooling. Frost-free Florida isn't frost-free any more, which means the citrus industry is having to adapt there, as well. The question of whether the climate change there is anthropogenic in origins is irrelevant to the demonstrable need to adapt.


Yet there are policies that can be adopted by national and regional governments that will have beneficial effects. The precursor to adaptation is resiliency, which gives a society the capacity to adapt. Characteristics of a resilient society include a strong economy, the rule of law, high trust (lack of corruption, confidence in institutions etc) and a lack of regulatory barriers to innovation. A resilient society recognizes that the ingenuity of its citizens is, in Julian Simon's words, its "ultimate resource," not the presence of abundant natural resources, the leadership of a certain class or the teachings of a dead philosopher. The guarantees the citizenry needs to exercise its brilliance constitute the institutions of liberty.


Thus, in the US, where the other institutions are already strong, we can strengthen our adaptive capacity by increasing our freedom to innovate in response to threats such as climate change, whatever its cause. There are many regulatory barriers to innovation in general, and in sectors like energy and transportation in particular.


These sectors are important because innovative adaptation can have mitigation benefits as well. For instance: ending certain regulatory requirements of air traffic control that increase flight times will reduce the amount of aviation fuel used and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well. "Free flight," as it is called, is technologically reliable, safe, and would reduce domestic emissions from aviation by 17 percent. In Sweden, experiments with "green landings" at airports have reduced the amount of fuel burnt during each landing by 535 lbs. The barriers exist as historical anomalies, and removing them would benefit passengers, industry, airports and the environment.


Strengthening the institutions of liberty in the developing world would also be of great benefit to the people of those nations. Freedom correlates strongly with wealth and health. As the most recent "Failed States Index" compiled by Foreign Policy magazine shows, states most at risk of failure tend to have younger populations. If educated and freed from tyranny and corruption, these states could explode with creativity rather than rebellion.


Yet that is not all that adaptation could do to arm the developing world against the threats of global warming. Most of the claimed negative effects from a warmer world relate actually to the exacerbation of pre-existing problems rather than from new problems. An adaptive approach would seek to reduce or eliminate the effects of those problems now, rather than trying to mitigate exacerbating effects in 50-100 years time. In the adaptive world, there is little or nothing to exacerbate, meaning that global warming will have little effect.


Indur Goklany, in a study for the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), examined the effects of tackling infectious diseases, hunger, water insecurity, sea level rise and threats to biodiversity now as opposed to attempting to mitigate climate change now. In all cases he found that tackling them now would have considerably more effect and be cheaper than tackling climate change. For example, meeting the emissions reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol will reduce the population at risk from malaria by just 0.2 percent in 2085. Investing as little as $1.5 billion in malaria prevention and treatment would cut the death toll in half today.


Moreover, we cannot ignore potential benefits of resiliency beyond greater capacity to adapt to climate change. In another study, Goklany found that a richer-but-warmer world provided greater benefits than a poorer-but-colder world. The benefits of wealth more than offset the costs or warming, while the climatic benefits of a colder world were more than offset by the costs of starving the world of energy to keep it cold. For example, if nothing is done to reduce temperatures, increasing wealth will drive down the population at risk from water shortage by up to 57 percent. The adaptive approach banks these benefits.


As the US News article suggests, environmental campaigners have always denigrated adaptation, because it is predicated on the idea that we can live with global warming. Such a suggestion is anathema to the pure eco-campaigner. In insisting that mitigation, and mitigation alone, is ethically acceptable, they have sent the world down an ideological tunnel, one in which meaningful dialogue between the realist and the purist has been impossible. If they had allowed such dialogue, it is likely that the world would be much further down a path towards dealing with global warming than it currently is.