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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts. . .

As evidenced by articles such as this at 'American Thinker', conservatives are again pushing adaptation as the responsible solution to climate change (which, you know, probably doesn't exist anyway):

"With adaptation -- adapting to climate as we go along -- there is no imperative for immediate action. If it turns out that the Earth not warming catastrophically, we will save a lot of money, and if it seems clear that, for example, sea levels are rising, then we spend money in 2030 or 2040 to increase the height of seawalls and take other measures to protect our coastal cities, at a time when our descendants will be wealthier and their technology far superior to ours."
I'll ignore some of the article's other flaws (including using dodgy science to estimate future sea-level rise - hello, ever heard of ocean heat uptake) and focus on the two truly erroneous assumptions it contains: a) that adaptation will be easy and b) that adaptation can be delayed. Perhaps we should be happy to hear that adaptation in the future will be easy, because at the moment it looks like pretty hard work. Most parts of the United States (if not the world) aren't doing anything and the research literature now documents a litany of reasons why. It would be nice if new technology and deeper pockets will solve all our problems. However, much of the infrastructure in countries like the United States (which I hear is among the world's wealthiest) is in need of upgrade or replacement. But it hasn't happened. One reason - the cost. The U.S. is going to have to invest trillions in coming years just to deal with the infrastructure maintenance backlog, not to mention the demands for new infrastructure. Adding adaptation costs into the mix isn't going to help. For example, a new 1.8 mile storm surge barrier installed in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina cost taxpayers $1.1 billion and it took five years to construct. As the article's author notes - even in places where vulnerabilities are well-known (e.g., New York City or New Orleans before Katrina) we don't invest in risk management. We might be wealthier in the future, but that doesn't mean we'll have money to spare. I don't see battles over federal budget appropriations becoming less difficult over time. 

But even if adaptation were easy, it's not true that we can simply wait and see what's going to happen or that waiting is invariably the most efficient choice. Sure, any number decisions can be postponed, and real options theory suggests there is value in such delays (or, more specifically, there is value in not get locked in to a particular path, which isn't necessarily the same thing). But ultimately, the decision isn't mitigate now or adapt later, it's mitigate now and adapt now. And if we don't mitigate now, we'll have to adapt that much more later. 


Hopefully, American thinking is a bit more nuanced and critical than reflected in American Thinker.

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