Monday, September 2, 2013

Preparing for Climate Change / Michael D. Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider -- Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010

Mastrandrea and Schneider's little book Preparing for Climate Change presents the case that adaption strategies to climate change must be driven by accurate assessments of local vulnerabilities.  For local adaptation strategies to work, they must be informed by global climate predictions, refined to distinguish local variations.  All of that seems uncontroversial; however, a discussion of climate change adaptation -- while critical in specific circumstances -- has the danger of playing into the hands of those who have denied climate change and continue to seek ways to defend the fossil fuel industry.  Consequently, any book such as Preparing for Climate Change should first of all emphasis the need to take drastic actions now to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Without such action, any effort to adapt is likely to be futile. Unfortunately, Mastrandrea and Schneider do not make this clear enough.

For a couple decades now, the fossil industry, related industries, and their apologists have worked hard to cast doubt first, about the fact that our climate is changing and then, about the fact that human activity is a significant -- if not leading -- cause of climate change.  Their misinformation campaigns have been surprisingly effective.  It is, perhaps, a testament to people's desire not to read the writing on the wall.  The truth is, as Al Gore has observed, just too inconvenient.  The evidence, though, is becoming clear to even the most casual observers:  loss of sea ice, Greenland's melting surface, glacier retreat, extreme heat waves, droughts, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and superstorms.  Furthermore, the evidence from these obvious phenomena are buttressed by an avalanche of scientific studies measuring sea level rise, ocean acidification, coral reef bleaching, the mountain pine beetle plague, and numerous other consequences of climate change.

More and more, climate change deniers are having to come to terms with the fact that the day they can cast doubt on anthropogenic climate change is ending.  Already we can see them changing their tactics in defense of the fossil fuels. "Adaptation" is becoming the preferred approach among the former denier community.  Their main argument is that while it is true that the climate is changing, the best way to deal with it is through developing the technologies and infrastructures that will minimize the harsh consequence of change.

Among the most famous proponents of this approach is the Danish political scientist and adjunct business professor Bjorn Lomborg.  According to Lomborg, the problems of climate change can be solved with the expenditure of a mere 250 billion dollars worldwide per year and that this expenditure would along the way help resolve poverty, educational deficiencies, disease, etc.  To be fair, Lomborg also is advocating investment in research into alternative energies, but he does not advocate deploying it just yet.  Deploying alternative energy systems and reducing carbon energy consumption certainly would mitigate the unfolding crisis, but for Lomborg, the cost of deploying wind and solar energy generators currently is too great.  Consequently, he believes money would be better spent on seawalls and storm-proofing buildings.

Lomborg's optimism about our ability to adapt to the coming changes does not take seriously the growing body of data that reveals potential threats far beyond our abilities to adapt.  Nonetheless, he has captured significant media attention for his views.  This is likely due to the fact that by minimizing the harms we face and overstating our ability to adapt takes the fossil fuel industry off the hook and allows us to believe we can continue our high-carbon lifestyles.  It is in the face of this that we should judge Mastrandrea and Schneider's Preparing for Climate Change and take care to place it in the limited context that it deserves, lest we add support to the fossil fuel industry's continuing campaign to profit at the expense of all of us and our descendants.

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