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mitigating guilt or adapting to change?

bergens tidende, 17 april 2008

Last week a report by James Hasen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute, warned that we need a drastic rethink in planned targets for carbon emission reductions. The EU proposes reducing C02 emissions to 550 parts per million - the most stringent target in the world. Not enough, says Hansen. A far more severe cut to 350 ppm is necessary if 'humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed.'

For years environmentalists have drummed into us the need to ditch our profligate, low-cost, throw-away lifestyles. Consume less, pay more, feel the pain has been the message. The Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali last year and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change have all concurred that the strategy of 'mitigation' - reductions in CO2 emissions - has to be the primary means of dealing with global warming.

But what if they are all wrong? What if attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions might actually make the impact of global warming worse? That is the heretical view a new school of thinking about climate change. The key debate about climate change in recent years has been about the science - is the world really hotting up and, if so, are humans responsible? There is still a minority of sceptics who question the idea of man-made global warming. The consensus, though, is that the earth is getting warmer - and that humans have helped turn up the thermostat.

The new sceptics, such as Professor Roger Pielke of the University of Colarado and the Dutch economist Richard Tol, do not question the reality of man-made climate change. They do question current policies to combat it - in particular the focus on mitigation. A low carbon economy would be good, they argue, but it also has its costs. It may be far more effective to stop fighting climate change and instead adapt to it.

The starting point for the new sceptics is the recognition that mitigation is a long term process. Even if all human activity ceased tomorrow, so there were no man-made carbon emissions, it would still take decades before we noticed lower temperatures. The world is going to get warmer whatever we do now. So we have no choice but to adapt. But adaptation should not be seen as something that humans have been pushed into by climate change. It is something we've always done. Climates are naturally variable, and humans have always responded to the challenge, being quite capable of living both in the Sahara and in Siberia. Rather than be obsessed or frightened by climate change, we should just get on with the job of dealing with it.

The trouble is, say the new skeptics, current policy makes the job of dealing with climate change more difficult, particularly for developing countries, the ones most likely to be ravaged by global warming. Take Bangladesh. It already faces a major problem from flooding that global warming will accentuate. In the long term, reducing carbon emissions will help staunch the rise in sea levels. But that will not happen for several decades. So, what is Bangladesh to do in the meantime? What it should do, of course, is build the infrastructure necessary to protect it, not just from global warming, but also from today's flooding. The Netherlands, another country much of which is below sea level, protects itself through a system of dykes. Why can't Bangladesh follow the Netherland's path? Partly, say the critics, because international policy on climate change, handicaps its ability to do so.

Mitigation is rooted in the idea that we need to slow down economic growth. But slowing down growth will undermine that capacity of a country like Bangladesh to build the necessary infrastructure. Poverty is already condemning Bangladesh to annual floods. How much worse will it be if we combine rising sea levels with slowing economies?

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that money spent on mitigation often takes away resources for adaptation. For instance, under the so-called Clean Development Mechanism, Western nations pay countries such as China and India to reduce their carbon emissions. Much of the money going into the Clean Development Mechanism comes from official development aid budget. What that means, as economist Richard Tol puts it, is that 'We're taking away money from the poor countries to give to the poor countries, but rather than spending it on development that is important to them, we're spending it on an issue like climate change that is important to us.'

Many environmentalists view the fight against the impact of climate change as a moral crusade rather than as problem requiring pragmatic solutions. Driven by guilt about the impact on the planet of human activity they are happy to preach about the need to change individual lifestyles. But adaptation often makes them uneasy because it requires a larger, not smaller, human footprint on the planet. For the biologist and climate change activist Tim Flannery, shifting the debate from mitigation to adaptation is tantamount to treason. Talking about adaptation, he suggests, is a bit like 'Chamberlain with the white paper in 1938: it's giving in.' Indeed, he likens adaptation to a policy of 'genocide'.

Such emotive lashing out will do little to help us meet the challenges of global warming. There is certainly a need to reduce carbon emissions - though we will have to develop ways of doing so without slowing down economic growth. But even more urgently we have to adapt society to a warmer world. That's not giving in. That's being rational.