Voices: More Rumbles From the Coming Adaptation Avalanche

This blog post was originally published by Dr. Mark C. Trexler in Sustainable Business Oregon, Sept. 9, 2013.

Dexter Gauntlett’s Aug. 29 blog “The coming avalanche of adaptation dollars” makes the case that climate change adaptation will be a major source of new revenue for consultants and other organizations in the Pacific Northwest.

I agree with the general direction of most of the information that Gauntlett cites. Adapting to climate change will be expensive, and adaptation is likely to become a substantial industry in its own right. I could quibble about the details and about Gauntlett’s sources, partially because many current activities can be categorized as either mitigation or adaptation spending when it comes to quantifying spending on something like adaptation.

That makes it difficult to figure out what the numbers in EBI’s reports really mean. But that’s not really the point. We agree that many dollars will have to be spent.

One huge problem, however, is that a great deal of this spending will end up being a zero-sum game. The hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars ultimately spent on adaptation will have to come from somewhere.

This summer’s fires are a great example. The Forest Service’s fire-fighting budget for 2013 is already exhausted, arguably based on the organization’s efforts to adapt to climate change (e.g. having to fight more fires). The USFS is now raiding other agency budgets to make up the difference.

Similarly, as cities have to spend serious money on adaptation, where is that money going to come from? To date, a lot of the adaptation planning undertaken by cities has been paid for by stimulus funding grants from the federal government. Most cities have no idea where they’ll get the money for major infrastructure projects that might be required to adapt to future climate change.

If San Francisco has to adapt to climate change by reducing its reliance on the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Yosemite National Park (recently threatened by fire), where will the enormous number of needed dollars come from? Most will have to come from other budgets.

There is also something fundamentally misguided about the increasingly common suggestion that climate change adaptation spending will be a substantial source of new jobs and economic growth. I’m sure some organizations are making a profit from helping to treat PTSD in soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, but that does not make PTSD a “good” thing. It’s an unfortunate necessity at this point; so is adaptation spending and somehow that needs to be reflected in the conversation.

Gauntlett began his blog with the statement “Hopefully we’re better at adapting to climate change than we are at preventing it.” I certainly agree, although I believe it is a false distinction. What level of climate change should we be planning to adapt to: 2oC, 4oC, 6oC, 8oC?”

All of these are likely or possible during this century, but talking about “adapting” to 6oC or 8oC of global climate change is fanciful. At the end of the day we have to figure out how to mitigate, or else we are increasingly likely to face the kind of runaway change described in James Powell’s cli-fi scenario “2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming.” We can’t fall into the mitigation vs. adaptation trap suggested by the CEO of Exxon Mobil when he stated last year “We’ve always adapted . . . We’ll adapt.” It’s simply not true.

In the 1983 movie War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, the U.S. goes to the brink of nuclear war on the mistaken impression that the Russians have launched nuclear missiles. Matthew Broderick’s character realizes just in time that Joshua (the U.S. air defense computer) is only running battle scenarios in preparation for a potential strike.

After dozens of simulated nuclear exchanges (prompted by Broderick’s helping Joshua figure out that tic-tac-toe is unwinnable), Joshua concludes regarding nuclear war: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

We can’t truly know the future when it comes to climate change. We know enough, however, to at least suggest that Joshua’s conclusion is very likely to apply to climate change if we were to approach the question in the same way.

The risks of climate change are so undeniably ecologically and societally disruptive if we get to 4, 6, or 8oC of future change that we’re almost certain to look back and ask, “[W]at were we thinking when we started playing this game?” — no matter how many consulting jobs we created at the time.

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