- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

The Politics of Climate Adaptation

I wrote a post [1] back in the midst of the Frankenstorm Sandy that, I think, wasn’t written as clearly as it might have been, and hence one of its major points didn’t come across. It really deserves a much longer discussion, but I’ll try to give at least a clearer outline here.

The climate change debate to date has overwhelmingly revolved around efforts at prevention – what can we do to reduce carbon emissions, how expensive will that effort be, would it be worth it if it worked, and would it even work. That’s an important discussion, but the most optimistic scenarios for reducing emissions still assume that the world is going to be pouring a lot of carbon into the atmosphere for years, even decades to come, and the mainstream climate models assume that we’re already over the limit in terms of atmospheric carbon.

I’m not arguing “it’s too late and therefore we shouldn’t do anything.” Not at all. I’m just saying that if even if we do everything those most alarmed by climate change want done, we’d still be facing the prospect of significant climate change. Which is going to require costly adaptations, particularly to coastal areas, like New York harbor.

The cost for building a seawall to defend New York has been estimated [2] at $17 billion. Triple that on the principle that you always triple contractor estimates – that’s $50 billion. But New York is only one city, and those estimates are for barriers to deal with storms on the level of Sandy and Irene. If sea levels continue to rise, Sandy’s surge won’t look like an outlier for very long. The way we normally do things in this country, we’ll probably see multiple rounds of construction as estimates of the size of likely surges change, which will be less cost-efficient than doing a much larger project designed to handle more alarming scenarios. And then, of course, there’s Miami, and Tampa, and Houston, and Norfolk-Virginia Beach to think about.

Over the next decade, we’re going to be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on protecting our vulnerable coastal cities and infrastructure from the effects of climate change. Or we’re going to be spending hundreds of billions on disaster recovery, and we’ll still need to spend hundreds of billions on climate adaptation because the disasters will keep recurring.

How are we going to pay for this?

I’ve been making the argument in this space for some time that we’re having the wrong spending debate. The debate about whether we should be spending more and borrowing more, or whether we should be spending less and borrowing less, really is secondary. The real problem is that we are unable to debate what our spending priorities ought to be – which is to say, what spending is most important for the future of the country.

Mitt Romney told the country on national television that, as President, he wouldn’t borrow for any program that wasn’t worth being in hock to China for. And yet, the two areas where he promised to increase spending were on reimbursements to health-care providers for current retirees, and on the military.

Climate adaptation is going to require a lot of money. Not impossible amounts of money, but real money – the kind of numbers we threw away on our Iraqi adventure. And we’re going to be spending that money not to improve the productivity of our economy, which would increase our national wealth, but to prevent disasters that will otherwise severely deplete our national wealth. We’ll be spending more just to stay in place, in other words. Which means we can’t just put it on the credit card and not worry about it. We have to think in terms of trade-offs.

Moreover, it’s going to mean taxing people who are less-likely to be affected by rising sea levels and more severe storms, to pay to protect people who are more-likely to be so affected. Which means, if it’s going to happen, we’re going to have to think of ourselves as one country, and not just a collection of squabbling constituencies.

But our political system seems completely incapable of thinking in those terms, and a major reason is that one of our major parties is committed to the proposition that anything it doesn’t like – from climate change to non-white voters – doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t seek power for any purpose but to make sure that power remains in the “right” hands.

Based on the way the GOP has behaved since the mid-1990s, I would expect them to stand squarely against doing anything at all, or, at best, to agree to such spending only if it is never paid for, and if inland constituencies get their own share of wasteful government gravy. In other words, I would expect the GOP at the national level to be an entirely negative force, even in the terms they supposedly care about: the overall fiscal picture of the country.

I’m waiting, on this as on so many other topics, for the Republican Party to prove me wrong. Because I want the country to have two responsible governing parties.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "The Politics of Climate Adaptation"

#1 Comment By john personna On November 12, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

I think climate change is real (p=0.80) and has a large man-made component (p=0.75) . I also think it is beyond human cognitive ability (p=0.90). That is, even if it is real, happening, and we are doing it, it is not sudden enough or apparent enough to drive our actions. We’ll dither and procrastinate and wait for someone else until … whoops there it went.

#2 Comment By JJM On November 12, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

So, uh, it’s on the inland people to do what’s right for the country, but not the coastal people? The inland people either pay extra or they’re evil greedy people, but the people living in an impossibly precarious location have a God-given right to live there?

How about, “climate change is going to cost a lot of money – to relocate the 50% or so that live in likely-flooded areas?”

#3 Comment By Kaila On November 12, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

This article fails on three points:

1) The first and most cost effective solution to disaster prevention is risk assessment, not money. For example, the Jersey boardwalk, sections of New Orleans and other coastal areas are extremely susceptible to flooding. Instead of sinking more money into these areas, perhaps we should simply not allow people to live in these areas or at least allow the market price of construction and insurance to reflect the true risk in these areas. As for other coastal and higher risk areas, perhaps the state governments should implement different/stricter construction requirements for these areas.

2) How much are citizens of one state obligated to help citizens of another state? According to the Constitution, there is no set obligation. In fact, for most of the Unites States’ history, disaster prevention and relief was handled by state and local governments with citizens of other states VOLUNTEERING their services/money.

3) The assumption that one party is inherently racist and anti-science is ludicrous and offensive, and I say this as a Black American. Truthfully, there are racist and anti-science elements in both political parties. Demonizing an entire party based on fringe elements and innuendo, while completely excusing the other party for the same behavior is hypocritical, divisive and does not allow us to solve problems objectively.

#4 Comment By Henry Chappell On November 12, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

The frustrating thing is that we can’t even have a productive conversation about climate change so long as influential Republicans and their allies in the media keep millions of voters convinced that climate change is a vast hoax.

In Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet, Roger Scruton makes the case for both “resilience” in the face of inevitable warming – building sea walls, say – and creating the market feedback that would spur innovation and raise money for research through a flat carbon tax. I find his argument persuasive. Of course, Scruton points out the risks in using bad behavior to fund good behavior. NASA’s James Hanson, one of the scientists most hated by deniers, recommends distributing funds raised by carbon taxation evenly among citizens. I can hear cries of “wealth distribution,” but in regard to carbon emissions, our economy is presently running open-loop. This is rational only if you assume that our atmosphere is an infinite sink. Otherwise, we’re forced to admit that we’re externalizing costs that will have to be paid by future generations.

Sorry about the long post, but the more I look at this issue, the more I worry.

#5 Comment By gzt On November 12, 2012 @ 11:24 pm

Climate change is also a significant risk to food production. Unfortunately, you can’t “just” build a wall or relocate people to fix a drought or, worse, a complete change of climate that makes it impossible to grow corn in a place where you used to grow corn. Climate change is slow, but agricultural adaptation is even slower, and we can’t put our food supply chain at risk.

Carbon taxes are a great way to raise revenue while discouraging carbon consumption, but the amount of revenue they’re capable of raising will probably all be eaten up in risk mitigation and dumping money into alternative energy investments and R&D.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 17, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

So global climate change is science . . . please tell me what the climate will be in Buenes Aries, Bisbanne, Moscow, Kaiserslautern and Bakersfield, CA will be in three months.
To include:

1. aeronautical contaminants and their chemical composition

2. Morning, Noon, Twilight Evening, and night time tempuratures, barometric pressures, , moisture (rainfall in inches).

3. Wind velocities and directions

February 16, 2013

#7 Comment By Lord Karth On November 18, 2012 @ 2:36 am

gzt writes: “Carbon taxes are a great way to raise revenue while discouraging carbon consumption, but the amount of revenue they’re capable of raising will probably all be eaten up in risk mitigation and dumping money into alternative energy investments and R&D.”

Horse noise. Any amount of revenue raised by a “carbon tax” will most likely be spent on unearned goodies for the Beneficiary classes of the welfare state. Not more than 1 %, if that, will be spent on “alternative energy investments”, “R & D”, or anything even remotely connected to the non-existent problem of global “warming”.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#8 Comment By Biff On November 18, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

Do you ever wonder we don’t hear more about the most abundant and powerful of all the “greenhouse” gasses – water vapor?

I’m betting it is because folks like Al Gore can’t find a way to demonize water vapor the same way they can with the “evil industrial byproduct” of CO2, much less figure out a way to tax it.

Perhaps this is why so many people, myself included, believe that the entire concept of man-made climate change is a a load of equine excreta, a scare tactic presented by those who would stand to profit most by its acceptance.

#9 Comment By West Eden On November 24, 2012 @ 11:39 pm

I never doubted that the earth’s climate changes – even dramatically; what I doubt is the degree of human influence on macro changes.

If the Al Gore’s of the world are correct, then allowing the less developed countries to enjoy massive exemptions from greenhouse gas emission controls is the same as refusing to patch half the significant holes in the life raft. You are still going to sink, but at least no one will be offended.

If we are in grave danger, than why don’t those trying to sell that position act as if we are in great danger and stop flying around the world attending conferences?

#10 Comment By lynne hazelip On November 26, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

As an earth scientist and life-long student of natural history, I suggest to the deniers to read the hard science, and not the political rhetoric.

Yes, like any other time in human history, its all about the FOOD. Countless times in our past, various societies have devastated the local environment only to face starvation. (Read Jared Diamon’s excellent book “Collapse”, for starters.) This is exactly what we are doing now with overpopulation, deforestation, and carbon dioxide.

“So global climate change is science . . . please tell me what the climate will be in Buenes Aries, Bisbanne, Moscow, Kaiserslautern and Bakersfield, CA will be in three months.”

That’s weather, not climate.

“Do you ever wonder we don’t hear more about the most abundant and powerful of all the “greenhouse” gasses – water vapor?”

I suspect you’ve seen the simplistic and misleading chart produced by the Heritage Foundation. Far, far more consequential is the addition of methane to our atmosphere via permafrost melting and poor controls on fracturing formations to release natural gas. Methane is a twenty times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.