Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A New Climate Change Discourse

Since its emergence as a major issue, the public discourse on climate change has focused primarily on preventing its harmful effects.  By predicting the consequences of climate change, we are better able to understand the dire necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  By focusing on strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (technology, government policy & regulation), we are better able to understand the trade-offs associated with different solutions.  Recently the idea of geoengineering, or global engineering solutions designed to prevent negative effects of climate change after greenhouse gasses have been emitted, has become popular in some circles.

Perhaps as a reaction to the extreme pessimism inherent in geoengineering proposals, a new category of climate change discussion is popping up: adaptation.  Whereas geoengineering is simply another attempt to prevent climate change's negative effects (albeit later in the geophysical process than reducing emissions), adaptation takes harmful climate change scenarios as givens, investigating how human societies and economies might adapt.

The Economist ran a great briefing about adaptation a few weeks ago, but the most comprehensive investigation of adaptation so far is the book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew Kahn.  A UCLA urban economist, Kahn looks at how climate change scenarios will affect the global economy, specifically cities.  He concludes that individual action will result in populations "voting with their feet" by moving away from areas hit the hardest.  Additionally, innovators who find ways of solving new problems caused by climate change will find much support.  The third major conclusion Kahn draws is that adaptation will be much easier for richer, developed populations, increasing socioeconomic inequality.  This seems like an obvious conclusion, but discussing it explicitly was incredibly uncomfortable yet refreshing: the banality of poverty and socioeconomic issues in developed countries today will probably just continue for the most part, albeit with a slightly rejiggered cast.

Though Kahn accepts discredited economic assumptions and models as truth a bit too readily (contrary to the University of Chicago's dogma, the map is not the territory), his core ideas are wonderfully conceptual.  The immigration he envisions might be orderly or fraught with conflict.  The individual "innovators" who develop effective adaptation strategies might be businesses selling floating houses or cheap air-conditioners, but they could just as easily be eco-warlords controlling walled cities housing the rich and the skilled.  Don't worry, though,  there are plenty of specific predictions and investigations for the detail-oriented: will Manhattan flood?  Should I buy property in Fargo, ND? Etc.

Focusing exclusively on the solutions and consequences of inaction, though useful in generating political support for action, suffers from a bad sensationalist bias.  Predictioneers always think that dire changes or critical thresholds are just around the corner, but the future usually turns out to be much more mundane and slow-moving.  Climate change is obviously an unprecedented global challenge, but the collapse of modern civilization is highly unlikely.  The internet isn't going away, and technological and cultural innovation will continue.  What's far more likely is a dull, painful slog with increasing social inequality and fluctuating geographic capital of long-inhabited locations.

Studying climate change adaptation is a breath of fresh air.  Climate change worriers like myself have been in deep despair for a while now.  Talk of adaptation might harm attempts to generate political support for prevention efforts, but it seems more intellectually honest.  The political dysfunction associated with this issue makes it increasingly unlikely that major prevention efforts will occur anytime soon.  Instead of despair, adaptation presents a new avenue for creative thinkers wanting to get involved.

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