We Can’t Stop Climate Change – It’s Time To Adapt

The release of the Productivity Commission’s draft report into climate adaptation at the end of last month could have been a spark that changed the debate in Australia.

That’s because it implicitly suggested that adapting to climate change – regardless of whether its origin is anthropogenic, ‘natural’, or whatever – is now the main game.

And the PC is not alone. In the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there was just one chapter on adaptation. The previous report in 2001 was the same: one chapter. Now, according to the outline of the 2013 report, the adaptation section will blow out to four chapters.

This new attention on adaptation makes sense. Nobody believes global emissions will be reduced to the extent the IPCC claims is urgent and necessary. Supposed deadlines for action have come and gone, over and over. By 2012, sceptics, alarmists, realists, and optimists should all agree that seriously mitigating climate change is a pipe dream.

So, given this, it was very disappointing the Productivity Commission’s draft report entered the public sphere with such a quiet thud last fortnight.

The mainstream press had a few short, passionless bites. The online specialty service Climate Spectator, which usually scrutinises every aspect of climate economics and politics, simply reposted a newswire report announcing the release. No further analysis apparently needed.

The final product will be released at the end of this year. But even in draft form, it starkly illustrates how much of a philosophical shake-up moving from a mitigation focus to an adaptation focus will be.

The PC’s report discusses worthy things like emergency management and information gathering. But its bulk argues this: in order to boost the resilience of Australian society, a rigorous program of deregulation, tax reform, and liberalisation is needed.

According to the PC, Australia needs economic growth and regulatory reform to deal with climate change. Yes, it is very disappointing this report didn’t get the attention it deserves.

As the PC says, regulations can make the economy inflexible. They make it harder for us to adapt to change. After all, individual regulations are written with certain circumstances in mind. When those circumstances change (as they would in a world with a shifting climate) the existing stock of regulations can add friction to adaptive action.

Other regulations increase costs and thereby reduce adaptation incentives – like those which meddle with insurance markets.

It’s the same with many taxes. The PC rightly says “taxes that influence the way resources are used … could inhibit the mobility of labour, capital, or both”. For example, property taxes make it more expensive to move out of low-lying areas at risk from sea level rises.

Government programs can also impede flexibility. Drought assistance creates an incentive for farmers to stay on marginal land, rather than relocating.

These are the practical issues. But an adaptation program is more than just a collection of policy recommendations. It is a different philosophy.

Rather than focusing on a single, over-arching, world-historical goal (achieved through unprecedented consensus and political action at the national and international level), adaptation focuses on process, institutions, and diversity. It asks: what makes communities most flexible, resilient, and responsive to environmental change? It’s about developing strategies to deal with uncertainty, not politics to achieve global reform.

In a 2009 paper published in the journal Atmospheric Sciences, Robert L Wilby and Suraje Dessai characterise this as the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches.

The IPCC looks top-down. This view is purpose-built for mitigation, but no good for adaptation. The IPCC struggles to assess climate change risks on a continental scale, let alone regional scale.

As Wilby and Dessai point out, the IPCC records a low level of scientific agreement even about the direction of rainfall change in much of Asia, Africa, and South America. That degree of uncertainty offers no guide for practical action.

By contrast, a bottom-up approach focuses on how communities adapt to local pressures, not global ones. After all, it isn’t the United Nations that will adapt to climate change. It is individuals. This approach is less flashy, but then, why should climate policy be flashy?

And emphasising adaptive capacity and resilience is a good thing, regardless of whether climate change is a naturally occurring phenomenon or the result of human recklessness. Wilby and Dessai call adaptation measures “no-regret” or “low-regret”. The PC calls them “win-win”.

In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, then senator Al Gore wrote that adaptation was a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins”.

Gore was writing when the IPCC was in its formative stages. This sort of thinking led to an explicit decision to focus on global emissions reduction. That decision has shaped the last two decades of climate debate. (Even including one chapter on adaptation in the 2001 report was seen as somewhat revolutionary.) But the decision built an analytical framework which no longer makes sense.

As a paper published in the journal Regional Environmental Change last year put it, under an adaptation-focused framework, “Science would thus place itself in the role of being a tool for policy action rather than a tool for political advocacy”.

Because the arrogance now rests with those who still believe they can coordinate massive, immediate global political action towards a single goal.

It is, surely, time to face up to the demands of adaptation.