Adapting To Climate Change
By Frances Cairncross
06 September, 2006 b
Almost all the discussion of
climate change up to now has been about "mitigation" - in
other words, how to prevent it from happening. But prevention, although
important, is not enough. Climate change is going to happen, and we
need to think more about adapting to it.
The issues raised by climate
change are particularly intractable. For instance, the prospect of climate
change tests to the limits the extent to which people today will give
up quality of life for the benefit of future generations - and of people
in other countries. Moreover, whereas the damage done by climate change
could be huge, the costs of taking action to avoid it will definitely
be enormous. Just reflect on the fact that oil today costs more than
$70 a barrel - the equivalent of a tax that no politician would have
dared to suggest when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated - and yet our
roads are still crammed with cars and our skies with planes.
In addition, this is an international
problem - not a national one. But climate change will affect different
countries in different ways. It will be harsh for India and sub-Saharan
Africa. But a sunny Siberia might delight Russia. If swathes of Arctic
ice melts, it will be easier to extract the oil and gas reserves - perhaps
one-quarter of the world's remaining buried stocks, much of them on
So striking a global deal
will be difficult. It is not a question of persuading America to sign
up to Kyoto - it won't - or even of extending that largely ineffectual
agreement. It will take extraordinary diplomacy and ingenious mixtures
of threats and rewards to persuade the main protagonists to reach agreement.
Moreover, even with the best
will in the world, we do not yet have the technology to prevent global
warming from occurring. A recent study by the International Energy Agency
reckoned that the speedy introduction of best practice in energy conservation
and in substitutes for fossil fuels would not be enough to prevent some
continuing rise in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.
The trouble is, our living
standards are inextricably related to our use of energy, and especially
to fossil fuel. Of course, we can increase energy from renewables such
as wind and solar power. But these account for about only 2 per cent
of world electricity generation today - whereas coal accounts for about
40 per cent. Coal will dominate, especially in China and India, for
the foreseeable future. Carbon capture and storage is going to be essential
here, but the technology has hardly begun to be used commercially.
Energy conservation could
reduce the prospective rise in emissions more sharply than any other
known technology. But the lags are long: many of the technologies we
use today were invented a century ago.
So some climate change looks
likely to occur, whatever we do. We should therefore think more about
adapting to hotter weather. Adaptation sounds brutal: and indeed meaningless,
if you live in Bangladesh. But we need to think now about policies that
prepare for a warmer world.
What might they be? Flood
defences and tough rules about building on flood plains are obvious;
so is better insulation against heat as well as cold, and more covered
and sheltered spaces in public areas, to protect against both the sun
and the probability of more rain. Developing countries will need crops
and trees that will thrive in hotter temperatures and drier conditions
- that should be a research priority for aid agencies. And species such
as plants and trees will need protected corridors running north-south
along which they can spread to move away from insupportably warm weather.
Adaptation policies have
big advantages. They can be pursued at a national - indeed, at a local
level - and so will involve far less complex international negotiation.
They will require good public policies, but a great deal of adaptation
will happen in any case, and largely through the private sector: no
government mandate boosted sales of fans and air conditioning as temperatures
soared this summer. Of course, there are important areas where no adaptation
is possible - we cannot relocate the Amazon or insulate coral reefs.
But governments could and should put in place an adaptation strategy
We should not abandon attempts
to slow global warming. The danger of disruptive change will increase,
the greater the atmospheric concentration of warming gases. But we should
equally not pretend that we can prevent climate change. It's going to
happen, and we need to be ready for it.
Frances Cairncross is president
of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Rector
of Exeter College, Oxford University.
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