Are We Giving Up on Managing Climate Change Risk? Part 1

Part 1:  What does our increasing focus on resilience really mean for climate change risk?  

One of my favorite book series is Catharine Asaro’s saga of the Skolian Empire, in which the ruling family protects their empire through their special mental ability to establish and operate the “Kyle Web.” The Kyle Web allows instant communication across the empire, allowing its military to outmaneuver and defeat their more numerous enemies.

I have always envied that capability.  It seems to me that an ability to see the “ultimate big picture” would surely help us figure out how to manage Risk 2.0 problems like climate change.  But that “big picture” has always been just out of my grasp.  Instead, I have become more and more confused over the years as to “the right way” to help address what can fairly be characterized as the ultimate risk issue of our time.

Like any good policy analyst, my professional perspective has always been driven by the idea that smart people can come up with rational solutions for even the biggest societal problems.  It is the same “If We Understand, Then We Will Act” approach to risk management that has guided climate change risk management thinking for the last 25 years.

Before getting involved in climate change, my doctoral work specialized in implementation theory, the policy-based study of what can and does go wrong between conceptualizing and implementing solutions to societal problems.  My research related to international environmental treaties, and when I started working at the World Resources Institute in 1988 I wrote a memo (which unfortunately I can’t find anymore) stating that there is nothing in the history of international environmental cooperation to suggest we can successfully respond to a problem with the characteristics of climate change.

This is still true as far as I can tell, and 25 years later we increasingly face two diverging perspectives on how to approach climate change.

  • “If we can adequately predict societal risk, and have the technical capacity, we will take steps to manage that risk.” (Policy Analyst Risk Paradigm)
  •  “We have spent our entire existence adapting. So we will adapt to this.” (Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, 2012)

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson made the statement above, referring to adaptation to climate change, in a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year; the environmental press criticized him.  And in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there has been a resurgence of calls for climate change policy representing the Policy Analyst Risk Paradigm summarized above.  Suddenly we’re all talking (again) about whether the events of 2012 might trigger a political “tipping point,” leading to science-based policy action on climate change.

The primary buzzword in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, however, is not climate change policy or risk management, it’s “resilience.”  Resilience seems to be something everyone can support, but how does the idea of resilience fit into the question of “successfully” responding to climate change?

Under what I’m terming the Policy Analyst Risk Paradigm, the definition of success in managing climate change risk is relatively clear.  As called for in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it means taking steps to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system.

The definition of success using the We’ll Adapt Risk Paradigm is much less clear to me.  Isn’t it likely looking back 100 years from now (almost regardless of what happens in the interim) that whoever is asking the question “did we successfully adapt” will conclude that we did succeed, since by definition they will still be around?  Won’t they conclude that we were “resilient” to climate change, much as Europe proved “resilient” to the bubonic plague 500-600 years ago (in which by some estimates 30-50 percent of the population died in a very short time period)?  That’s the beauty of the “We’ll Adapt” paradigm. Almost no matter what happens, the argument that “we’ll adapt” will be proven true for whoever is around to still care about the question.

So the question is, with the growing focus on resilience and adaptation, does that mean we’re giving up on managing climate change risk?  Is climate change a Risk 2.0 problem that is just too big for rational policy-making to tackle?

Come back in a few days to see Part 2:  If We’re Not Giving Up on Climate Change, What Then?

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