Are We Giving Up on Managing Climate Risk? Part 3: Can We Avoid “Bad Things Happen, and Then More Bad Things Happen”?

In Part 1 of this blog series, I raised the question of whether the growing focus on adaptation and resilience suggests (perhaps subliminally) that we’re giving up on managing climate risk.  In Part 2, I looked at four potential climate futures; I tentatively concluded that Scenario #3, “Bad Things Happen, Then More Bad Things Happen,” probably best reflects current science and policy trends, as well as Occam’s razor (when you have two competing theories that make the same predictions, the simpler one is the better one).  Which brings me to Part 3: what could we do to avoid Scenario #3?

I won’t try in this short blog post to lay out a game plan for stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of CO2; thousands of pages have been written on what would be required to avoid dangerous climate change.  Unfortunately, we simply don’t know how to get “from here to there” when it comes to avoiding dangerous climate change in a politically or economically viable way.  We need a new “frame”:

  • Step 1:  Stop arguing it’s a simple problem to solve.
  • Stop 2:  Stop treating it as a science problem.
  • Step 3:  Stop looking for silver bullets.
  • Step 4:  Stop focusing exclusively on 2oC.

These are challenging but doable “re-framings” of the climate change problem; over time, perhaps such a re-framing could increase the likelihood of a successful outcome in managing climate risk.

Step 1:  Stop arguing climate change mitigation is simple.  In my recent blog post, The 1,000,000 Piece Climate Change Jigsaw Puzzle, I talked about a tendency among some influential climate experts to downplay the difficulty of addressing climate change.  I assume they believe that the easier we make it sound, the less opposition we will face.  In reality, a number of things would have to fall into place to avoid Scenario #3:

  • Development of new technologies
  • Technology deployment at a radically accelerated pace
  • Circumventing ideological barriers to climate change as a perceived problem
  • Changing how we measure economic welfare and advancement
  • Improving scientific and risk literacy
  • Developing more effective methods of publicly communicating climate risk
  • Internalizing the environmental externality leading to climate change by implicitly or explicitly pricing carbon

I’m sure some will disagree about this list.  But whatever one thinks about the listed bullets, we should be able to agree that “it’s not simple.”

Stop 2:  Stop treating climate change as a science problem.  Continued research in climate science is certainly important, perhaps particularly in the context of adaptation planning.  But if addressing climate change were primarily a function of getting a scientific consensus, we likely would have settled on 350 ppm as a societal goal a decade ago.  We would be well on our way by now toward achieving that goal.  Unfortunately, we haven’t settled on 350 ppm or made much progress towards stabilizing concentrations at any level.   Yet we continue to act as if more science might tip the balance of public and political opinion any day now, as if a lack of climate science literacy is the primary thing holding back climate policy.  If scientific consensus hasn’t convinced much of the U.S. public when it comes to the public’s belief in evolution (less than 50%), why would we imagine a different outcome for the more complicated topic of climate change?  A lack of science is not the problem preventing risk-based climate policy and climate action.

Step 3:  Stop looking for the silver bullet.  In the same recent post, I discussed our tendency to think of solving climate change as primarily a matter of finding the right “silver bullet”:

  • If only we could rapidly deploy existing technologies, we’d almost be there!
  • If only we could get cap-and-trade policy, we’d be on our way!
  • If only we could impose a price on carbon, we’d solve the problem!
  • If only we could improve science literacy, we’d get good policy!
  • If only we could enact campaign reform, we’d overcome political resistance!
  • If only we could better communicate climate risk, people would “get it”!

These bullets don’t stand alone.  Rather, they are closely linked. It’s unlikely we will significantly improve science literacy without figuring out how to communicate climate risk.  It’s also unlikely we will sufficiently rapidly deploy technologies without the right policy framework, and without a price on carbon.  So what might look like silver bullets are really just pieces in a larger climate change jigsaw puzzle.

Twenty-five years into our search for mitigation silver bullets, we’re now transitioning to a focus on climate change adaptation, a whole new category of silver bullet. But people are making progress on pieces of the climate change jigsaw puzzle, even if they don’t have any sense of what the larger puzzle looks like.  If we could more systematically encourage and fertilize examples like the following, who knows where we might end up?

  • Innovative K-12 climate change curriculums at the state level;
  • Municipal experiments to test voter perceptions and understanding of climate risk;
  • Corporate initiatives intended to promote risk reduction through climate policy;
  • A climate change training program for meteorologists;
  • New investor guidance on incorporation of climate risk into investment screens;
  • Seed funding for a potentially disruptive energy efficiency technology;
  • A pilot program to enlist U.S. farmers into climate risk and climate policy discussions.

Because we really don’t know how to get “from here to there” in terms of avoiding dangerous climate change, identifying and advancing a broad range of the most promising puzzle pieces could lead to synergies and breakthroughs we can’t even visualize today.  Identifying and opportunistically supporting a wide range of climate change jigsaw puzzle pieces is a very different strategy than the more silver-bullet oriented approach that has characterized the last 25 years of climate change mitigation efforts. We’ve been applying Risk 1.0 strategies to a Risk 2.0 problem.  We need to adapt our strategies to the fundamentally different nature of Risk 2.0 problems.

Step 4:  Stop focusing exclusively on 2oC.   An important aspect of adapting our risk management strategies to the Risk 2.0 nature of climate change is to rethink what we define as “success.”  If we have no politically and economically viable strategy for preventing dangerous climate change, what’s the point of continuing to advance as the only measure of “success” the purely political construct of a 2oC threshold?  First, the implications of 2oC of climate change may more dangerous than we have previously assumed. That said, if “business as usual” is now 6-8oC, 3oC looks darned good!  It’s easier to come up with politically and economically viable ways to limit climate change to 3oC or 4oC than to 2oC.  It may be counter-intuitive, but our chances of limiting climate change to 2oC would probably be enhanced rather than undermined by what I’m proposing.  If we could get agreement on the steps needed to limit climate change to 3-4oC, and actually implemented those steps, we might see exactly the kinds of breakthroughs that ultimately could help us limit change to 2oC.  But if we simply endlessly debate 2oC, while on course to reach 6-8oC, everyone loses.  In parallel to moving away from silver bullet solutions to climate change, we need to move away from a single-minded view of success and failure.  Politicians will be reluctant to start this conversation; the climate community needs to lead the way.

If we want to cut the Gordian knot that currently characterizes the climate change issue, reframing key aspects of our approach would be a good start.  If insanity can be defined as “continuing to do the same thing while expecting a different result,” isn’t 25 years enough?

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