Culture Magazine

Can We Adapt to Climate Change?

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Ashutosh Jogalekar reviews Bjorn Lomborg, False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet, in 3 Quarks Daily. From the review:
The benefits of climate adaptation become clear in the case of large-scale flooding due to sea level rise, one of the biggest concerns of climate change proponents. The book talks about a report based on two papers that estimate the damage as a percentage of GDP caused by sea level rise. With no adaptation, the damage is worth 5.3% of GDP and will lead to 187 million people displaced by the year 2100 even after spending 24 billion dollars on dikes. But strikingly, by just doubling the spending on dikes to 48 billion dollars, the models predict that the cost of flooding will now drop to only 0.008% of GDP. Even the authors of the studies from which these dire estimates are drawn say, “Damages of this magnitude are very unlikely to be tolerated by society and adaptation will be widespread.” Even the earlier study reported in the New York Times said in its abstract that “coastal defenses aren’t considered.”
The example of dikes shows that not only will adaptation be inevitable but that it would be relatively cheap and lead to disproportionate benefits. Constructing dikes to minimize water damage is cheap. Putting better building and fire codes in place and discouraging people from living in dry forested areas is cheap for minimizing the impact of forest fires. If malaria caused by mosquitoes breeding in warmer areas because of climate change is a concern, making nets and spraying insecticide is cheap. Smog and air pollution have already been drastically reduced in major cities by local and national government action. All these things are vastly cheaper than large-scale cuts to carbon emissions which would be like trying to drive a nail in a wall using a bulldozer; the nail may possibly be driven in, but the entire house would likely collapse. If flooding is threatening your town or state, in general in seems foolhardy to try to address it by asking China or the United States to expensively reduce CO2 emissions over the next fifty years and much more sensible to cheaply build dikes.
The point that Lomborg makes is that even if we assume that extreme events are caused by warmer weather, it does not mean directly tackling carbon emissions is the best way to address these problems. An elephant in the room is the so-called “bullseye effect”. The bullseye effect simply says that as you expand a bullseye, the chances of hitting the target increase. In case of flooding, forest fires or hurricanes, a big reason why they are causing more damage every year is simply because more people are living in and building expensive assets in the areas in which they strike. So while adaption certainly will be valuable, the simple but perhaps challenging policy of discouraging more people to live in disaster-prone areas will also minimize the damage because of global warming.
A word of caution:
One of the things that Lomborg does not focus on is that all these models – both ones predicting severe effects and one predicting mild ones – are ultimately models. They contain many assumptions that don’t always hold, they are simplified representations of reality and and they often don’t account for non-linear network effects. One of my concerns is that while Lomborg is rightly skeptical of models that portend catastrophe, he is less skeptical about models that forecast the low economic costs and relative benefits of climate change. However it is fair to say that it is precisely because of uncertainties like these that models of the kind Nordhaus uses have a 25% margin of error baked in. Lomborg’s argument is that even with these error margins, the impact is not half as bad as we are made to believe. Nonetheless, keeping that these are models in mind all the time can greatly finesse discussions on climate change and set the right expectations on both sides.
About fossil fuels:
Unfortunately the advantages of fossil fuels lie in basic laws of physics which are almost impossible to circumvent. Because there’s so much oil and natural gas around, fossil fuels are cheap. Because they consist of the most reduced source of carbon (hydrocarbons), they are energy-dense. Mirroring what Gore said, depriving the average citizen of a developing country of fossil fuels would indeed be not just impractical but immoral. In fact this is one of the central problems rich countries like the US have faced in climate change negotiations in which they ask China and India to cut down on fossil fuels and growth while having enjoyed unprecedented growth from fossil fuel burning for decades themselves.
Sadly, most of the climate change negotiations until now have pushed this central fact about the basic energetics and economics of fossil fuels under the rug. The Paris Agreement is sadly the latest culprit in this parade of failed policy prescriptions. The Paris Agreement basically asks every country to voluntarily cut greenhouse gas emissions until 2050. Quite aside from the fact that shifting political and economic realities will make it impossible for most countries to keep these promises, many countries like Mexico are consigning their citizens to an impoverished existence by promising deep cuts. The costs of the agreement are huge – about a trillion dollars per year. However, this vast expenditure of money would result in a minuscule temperature drop of 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit. [...] It goes without saying that a trillion dollars a year would allow any country in Africa or a country like India to improve its citizens’ welfare significantly. In other words, the Paris Agreement calls for very expensive and unrealistic actions resulting in a very small benefit. [...]
The problem with cutting the kinds of emissions as stated in the Paris Agreement is that while their benefits will be minuscule, their costs in terms of stalling national and personal progress will be enormous. Rich people will not be impacted much because their losses will be small, but there will be more people left in poverty and less money for them to climb out of it through investments in education, healthcare and simple technological adaptation. It’s a good example of why climate change policy will hurt the poor the most.
The fallacy of keeping people poor by tying all their problems to climate change is a significant part of the issue. Poverty, air pollution, disease and a lack of educational opportunities are all critical challenges faced by a majority of the world’s population. These problems may partly be tied to climate change, but most of them are separate from it.
Alternative energy sources:
When governments say they are funding “alternative energy”, it almost always means solar and wind energy. But the problems with both of these sources are well known and yet strangely persistent. Neither of these sources work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and baseline energy still has to come from fossil fuels. Wind farms take up land and both wind turbines and solar panels use significant energy from fossil fuels in their production. Efficient energy storage may provide a partial solution, but we aren’t there yet. The harm of pivoting significantly to solar and wind energy becomes clear when we look at Germany. Under a sweeping energy policy, Germany moved away from nuclear power to solar and wind energy. As a result, they pay the highest electricity prices of anybody in Europe. This might still be feasible for a German, but it’s not so for an average rural African or Indian.
We came up with technological solutions like GMOs for fighting hunger, technological solutions like vaccines for fighting disease and technological solutions like catalytic converters for fighting air pollution; we did not think that implementing these solutions reflected resignation in any way. It shouldn’t be any different for global warming. We have already implemented cheap technological adaptations for fighting floods, hurricanes and forest fires and should undoubtedly implement more of these. Most importantly, we need to have a more optimistic view of technology as an important part of the solution. One of the most spectacular stories of using technology to address climate change is fracking, and it was technology that was discovered serendipitously and deployed quickly. [...]
Unfortunately as Lomborg points out, funding for renewables and green energy R&D had actually reduced in the last ten years. What is even worse is that both the government and the private sector pick winners and losers like solar and wind energy. As with most R&D, the best solution to combat climate change will be one which we cannot predict, so the best policy is to fund a wide range of options. Lomborg lists a few including algae that can produce biofuels by consuming CO2, better storage technology for wind and solar power, salt spray that can create whiter clouds that reflect sunlight and new kinds of nuclear fission and fusion reactors that can provide clean energy. I think one of the most promising avenues might be genetically engineering trees so that they can bury more carbon in their roots and in topsoil and less in their shoots.

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