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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is Adapting To Global Warming A Surrender Or A Needed Part of the Solution?

Summary: Global warming due to build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, arising from human activities, is a major threat to life on our planet as we know it.  Many recent reports (see Note 1), as well as international meetings called to combat global warming, emphasize needed efforts to mitigate, i.e. minimize, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  The second aspect of dealing with warming is adapting to the effects that warming will exert on various regions of the planet.  In other words, what measures should we be implementing going forward to accommodate to changes in, for example, heat and drought, or increased violent weather events, rainfall and flooding, rather than combating the causes of warming in order to minimize their effects?  Is adapting to temperature and moisture changes an important aspect of the battle against global warming, or does adaptation imply abandonment of the battle to minimize its effects?

Adaptation has recently been discussed in a news magazine.  A recent scientific journal publication obliquely considers the opposing view.  The Economist, in the issue of November 27, 2010, presents a leader (editorial) and a feature article promoting adaptation.  The Economist writes
“In the wake of the Copenhagen summit [December 2009], there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam….Acceptance [of adaptation], however, does not mean inaction. [Over eons, environmental pressure has meant evolutionary changes, sometimes involving death.  But humanity] has the advantage of being able to think ahead, and to prepare for the changes to come. That’s what needs to happen now.”
The magazine further concludes that, in the face of seemingly overwhelming political barriers to achieving world-wide agreement on mitigation, the “fight to limit global warming…is thus over.” 

In the view of The Economist, adaptation remains as the sole, or at least principal, recourse.  The magazine recognizes that this conclusion is not acceptable to environmentalists, for it removes the pressure to agree on mitigation strategies.  The magazine points out that adaptation can be readily carried out among rich countries.  As an example, it cites the Dutch, who are already planning enhanced dikes to keep out rising waters from their lands.  Rich countries can readily afford expensive projects, and can generate hedge instruments as insurance against the effects of global warming.  For example, the magazine encourages New York City to erect barrages in its waterways to protect it from rising sea waters.

Poor countries, on the other hand,
“will often lack the financial means, technical expertise or political institutions necessary for such endeavours. Yet they are often at increased risk, principally because they are usually more dependent on farming than rich countries, and no other human activity is so intimately bound up with the weather.” 
The Economist encourages the poor to abandon farming and migrate to large cities, which should lead to practices there that will help them find jobs.  It is recognized that the nonbinding Copenhagen Accord promised poor nations aid of up to $100 billion/year from rich countries, divided between mitigation and adaptation, which is expected to help.  It should be noted, however, that one year later (i.e., at this time) much of the support committed by nations of the world has not materialized.

Evaluation of The Economist’s Analysis.  This writer generally seeks to maintain an objective perspective in reporting on current developments in global warming.  Nevertheless he finds several aspects of the articles in The Economist to be disturbing.  By accepting the “business as usual” scenario cited in Hoffert (Science, 2010, Vol. 329, p. 1292-4; see Note 1; described in an earlier posting) the magazine implicitly sustains the powerful economic interests pursuing energy production by an ever-growing reliance on fossil fuels.  Producers of fossil fuels have little interest in investing in carbon-free energy production.  They thus probably favor adaptation instead of mitigation.

There can be no question that many detrimental effects of global warming are already upon us, and will grow considerably worse as the global average temperature mounts beyond 2 deg C (3.8 deg F) above the level prevalent prior to the industrial revolution.  (Currently the world stands at 0.7 deg C above this reference level.)  Whereas climate scientists are virtually unanimous in calling for dramatic mitigation measures to be undertaken, the political leaders of the world, especially those of the countries that are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, have been unable to reach agreement, even on the beginnings of programs to reduce them.  Among the factors that are cited in opposition to mitigation are the large costs associated with developing and installing new alternative energy sources.

Yet The Economist ignores major financial, societal and cultural costs involved in surrendering to global warming.  As noted, the magazine admits that adaptation would be relatively painlessly accomplished in the rich countries of the world, albeit with major expenditures on huge defensive infrastructure projects.  As for the impoverished countries, however, the magazine envisions internal migration on a large scale, with its fundamental disruptions of family life, urban living patterns, expansion of slums, and reduced food supplies provided by the once-productive former farmers.  China and India are two countries already experiencing major societal disruptions due to internal migration.  These transformations bring with them their own problems which, going forward, will require the expenditure of vast sums of money by the domestic host governments.  The new urban poor will require food, housing, jobs, and health care, for example, all of whose costs are borne only by imposing a large financial burden.

The Economist further ignores that the world’s population in the time scale considered, say, to 2050, is envisioned to grow from the present 6 billion souls to about 9 billion.  The great majority of this increase will be among poor populations of the world, not in the rich countries.  Thus all the problems summarized above will be magnified even more greatly by the expected expansion of the planet’s population. 

In summary. The Economist would have us exchange one set of cost factors, those involved in developing mitigation efforts worldwide, with a second set of cost factors, identified in the preceding paragraph.  It is likely that the financial burdens of the two alternatives will be not radically different, but the increase in human suffering under an adaptation regime is likely to be far more serious than would result from vigorously pursuing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Furthermore, there is no guarantee that needed adaptation measures will in fact be undertaken.

Mitigating Energy Poverty in Central America.  As an example of mitigation undertaken in a poor rural setting, Casillas and Kammen discuss their efforts at countering an “energy-poverty-climate nexus” in Nicaragua (Science, 2010, Vol. 330, pp. 1181-1182).  Working in rural towns served by local microgrids providing diesel-generated electricity, the authors succeeded in actual lowering of electricity usage by installing meters and converting lighting to compact fluorescent lights; they also predict further savings, for example by using animal waste for biogas production and installing wind turbines.  These measures of course also lower CO2 emissions.  Only installing solar (photovoltaic) cells, while further reducing CO2 production, is predicted to lead to higher costs.  The authors find that mitigation measures such as these, suitable for rural areas living in poverty, advantageously enhance the lives the population in place.

Conclusion.  Some commentators, in the face of the failure of the world’s countries to agree on efforts to mitigate increasing warming of the planet, despairingly abandon these efforts and support developing adaptive measures instead.  Most climate scientists, and many of their supporters in the community at large, recognize that emphasizing adaptation implies a surrender to the seeming impossibility of reaching agreement on mitigation.  They prefer to redouble efforts in order to implement world-wide mitigation measures.  Each scenario brings with it major costs.  Mitigation requires primarily large financial expenditures.  (Societal issues such as siting of facilities have not been addressed here.) Adaptation, on the other hand, carries with it serious societal and cultural costs in addition to financial expenses.  Citizens of the world must evaluate these scenarios and decide which, or which combination of them, should be pursued.

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Note 1. (Full report, available for purchase)

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