The latest four alarm fire on the climate change front is the melting of a chunk of west Antarctica’s ice sheet, which appears to have passed the point of no return. Should that unstoppability encourage us to surrender to the siren song of futility?
I don’t think so. I have long maintained that we need to focus at least as much on the adaptation front as we do on the emissions-control front, because a lot of climate change is already “baked in.” And some rise in sea levels and increases in storm surges are particularly certain in the near term. Coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans, New York, etc. are going to have to invest heavily in infrastructure to keep the sea at bay, and the allocation of the cost of adaptation is going to become a significant political issue in the years and decades to come.
But though a rise in sea levels and an increased incidence of extreme weather are the easiest parts of climate change to understand, they aren’t actually the most important. Human beings adapt pretty readily to flooding. We know how to build sea walls, and ecologically-sophisticated systems of flood control. In the extreme, we know how to move – we are a highly mobile species.
It’s less clear how well we’d adapt to wholesale changes in the ecology attendant on changes in CO2 levels. An increase in the acidity of the oceans, for example, could significantly disrupt the marine food chain (what’s left of it after over-fishing). A wide variety of land-based species are also sensitive to changes in the climate; global changes could have an unpredictable global impact on overall biodiversity. The earth, of course, will adapt just fine; the terrestrial climate has seen some pretty huge swings over geological timescales, and the diversity of life has recovered from multiple mass-extinctions. Human beings, though, have only been around for a million or so years (much less depending on how picky you are about what counts as “human”), and large-scale civilization is only a few thousand years old. We have no idea how well that civilization would adapt to widespread ecological disruption.
Moreover, there is a synergy between efforts to reduce the impact of human activity on the environment and efforts to repair or adapt to the consequences of that activity. The slower the rate of CO2 and methane emissions, the slower these changes will progress; in effect, we’d be buying time to adapt. Adaptation efforts cost money; it makes more sense to raise that money through Pigovian taxes on the kinds of activities that contribute to the problem than to pile up debt or impose taxes that impose more of an economic drag. And breakthrough technologies that could radically reduce emissions would be just as useful to China and India as they are to countries on the developmental frontier. China will certainly not sacrifice economic development for the sake of the environment; take a look at their air quality if you doubt that. But could they be bribed to continue development on a greener path? I don’t see why not – it’s a question of price. Could we afford to pay the bribe? That depends on how big the bribe has to be, which in turn depends on the state of alternative energy and emission-capture technologies – which, in turn, is an argument for spending money to move that frontier.
None of the above is news. So why do the points need to be made over and over again?
Or, let me ask the question another way. Why are so many conservatives comfortable with arguing that it’s good for the rest of the world to free-ride on a collective-security regime where the bulk of the costs are born by the United States (to be sure, TAC-style conservatives are much less-likely to do so), or that it’s good for the rest of the world to free-ride on a pharmaceutical research regime where an outsized share of profits are generated on the backs of the American taxpayer, but balk at applying the exact same logic to fighting climate change? What kinds of threats spur us to action and what kinds make us numb with futility? What kinds inspire us to bear any burden and pay any price, and what kinds make us worry about being played for a sucker?