January 31, 2009

Adapting to Adaptation

Helmut, citing a recent report describing the persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (about 1,000 years, it seems), says it's time to get serious about adaptation to climate change:
Look, emissions credit trading is fine in my view as a stopgap measure, as are carbon taxes. But neither present a real answer to climate change, as I've been saying over the past few years (see here, and more here, here, here, and here). Much of the international negotiations over climate change are, however, based on the extent of trading regimes, taxes, etc. I'm not saying that this is not important. Mitigation is crucial, and these mitigation policy options are crucial, but a wise overall climate policy will view them as part of a larger basket of diverse policy efforts.
I'm more sanguine about the potential effectiveness of climate change mitigation than Helmut is, but I fully agree that more attention needs to be paid to adaptation policies. Already it's a point of contention in international climate change negotiations, as the question of how to dole out money to developing countries for adaptation purposes gets hashed out.

Part of the problem, I think, is that talking about adaptation involves questions of justice that have mostly vanished from the policy conversation, at least in this country. It's relatively easy to sell carbon regulation as a means of transitioning to a new, greener economy; that appeals to American ideals of progress, and has the potential to make some people very rich -- Tom Friedman, for example, embodies this line of argument. It's a bit harder to say that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the source of so much prosperity, so that we don't leave our descendants a ruined climate; and harder still to say that we need to not only compensate the most vulnerable to climate disruptions in our own society, but also those in other countries, which would entail acknowledging that we in the Global North have inflicted -- and will continue to inflict -- massive harm upon those living in the Global South.

Now, all of those arguments are valid reasons to take action on both climate change mitigation and adaptation. But these days you mainly hear about the first argument (economic opportunity), a bit less about the second (intergenerational equity), and almost nothing about the third (justice for the world's poor). A lot of it has to do with what Matt Yglesias has aptly termed the solipsism of public discourse in the United States: The idea that we need to place some constraints on our own consumption so that places like Bangladesh and Chad don't become uninhabitable is, simply, beyond the pale. Likewise, providing compensation to Bangladeshis and Chadeans means admitting that we in the US have obligations to people outside our borders, something a disturbingly large number of our elites seem to have a hard time doing. Thanks to years of mau-mauing from conservatives, for example, ratifying treaties has become so difficult that even no-brainers like the Law of the Sea Convention have yet to be passed. Existing treaties fare little better: the ease with which the Geneva Convention's ban on torture was deemed "quaint" by the Bush administration -- and acceptance of torture made a mainstream position in our public discourse -- astonishes me to this day.

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