Climate Change: how can we adapt?


(cross-posted from Troppo and The Conversation)

On Monday, the Crawford school at the ANU ran a symposium on whether or not the government policy on carbon emissions was good policy. The video of the event should shortly appear here.

The main surprise for me was to see how clearly some of  the other economists speaking there, like Warwick McKibbon, David Pierce, and Henry Ergas, were skeptical about the prospects of serious coordinated international efforts to reduce carbon emissions. There were not prepared, like me, to say the whole emissions effort is a waste of resources and a symbolic exercise, but there was a surprising degree of common skepticism about the prospect of buying carbon emission off-sets abroad (which is essentially what the current plan is to meet Australia’s targets) as well as the improbability of an international ETS.

The main message of my presentation was that it is time to get more serious about adaptation. The synopsis is over the fold.

The world is getting warmer and wetter, almost undoubtedly due to the fact that we are burning up fossil fuels at an incredible rate. Whilst this change in our climate will lead to some positive opportunities, such as wine growing in Tasmania, our natural and social habitat is not accustomed to changes that are this rapid and we should hence expect a significant loss of biodiversity and human infrastructure if we cannot halt climate change.

There are those that believe that we can avert climate change by repenting of our sinful energy-guzzling ways. They advocate an increased cost of activities that lead to carbon emissions in the expectation that this will gradually become normal throughout the world, eventually leading us to new technologies that will make humans more carbon neutral. They expect small-step policies, like the one the Australian government is planning to implement in 2012, to be instrumental in getting towards long-term changes in our use of energy.

Then there those like myself who see no hope whatsoever in reducing emissions. Most of the rest of the world simply doesn’t worry enough about the climate in coming decades and centuries to make the radical adjustments asked for. The scenario I see unfold is for the world to more or less go through the cheapest means of energy first, only using the cleaner energy as the more polluting but cheaper forms have run out. For sure, I also hope for technological breakthroughs, but having seen no major new technology in the last 50 years that comes close to out-competing coal and oil, I am not holding my breath that the magic technological fix is around the corner.

So if you fully expect the climate to change and think of policies surrounding carbon emissions as feeble symbolic gestures, does this mean you want to do nothing? The answer is no. If you are desperate enough, you try geo-engineering fixes that do not require massive and sustained coordination. Otherwise, what you do if there is a problem you can’t fix is that you learn to live with it and adapt to it such that you minimize the loss and maximize the gain.

Let us remind ourselves what we are adapting to. As a rule of thumb, in the course of 10 years we are talking about a warming of 0.1 degree Celsius, an increase in sea levels by 5 centimetres, and about a 0.5% increase in rainfall per 10 years. Ocean acidification and the melting of the ice caps make up even slower changes in our climate. On reflection, these anticipated changes in climate are very fast from a geological point of view, but from a human point of view they are painstakingly slow. You would be forgiven for not noticing any changes in your lifetime, which is of course precisely why I deem it folly to expect the world to really get anxious about this.

For any investment that is usually written off in a matter of decades, which includes most existing housing and nearly all business investments, the slow change in climate means that taking account of climate change is irrelevant since there will be plenty of time in the future to redirect such investments when the climate is actually noticeably different. One can think of making building codes take account of a greater likelihood of floods and storms, but that is about it.

The things to really worry about are public investments with payoffs measured in centuries rather than decades. Where governments have a particular role is in fishing stocks, biodiversity, nature parks, coastal lands, and other public goods that get given down via the generations.

How can governments react to the collapse in the stocks of those fish that would disappear due to acidification of the oceans? That acidification is a serious problem, to the extent that if it goes on unchecked, we’d be in the situation in a century or so time that the shell of many marine animals would dissolve, which means the end of them and things that feed on them.

One question is whether acidification can be reversed by pumping more alkaline substances into the ocean or churning alkaline rock beds in the ocean itself. Given the amount of fossil fuels we dig up, one would need an awful lot more chalk into the oceans to balance the acidity. My understanding is that this is an active area of research where we don’t yet know if acidification can be countered by things like mixing up shelves of chalk under the seabed.  A ‘coalition of the willing’ could try to churn enough calcium in the oceans to prevent further acidification and Australia could lead research and international efforts that way.

If it turns out that acidification is unavoidable, we should think of ways of preserving the biodiversity. Governments can extend the conservation areas in the oceans, can set up ‘artificial reefs’ on land that preserve some of the current marine diversity, can set up gene banks for the many current marine life species, and in various other ways can preserve as much of the marine life diversity as possible in the cheapest way possible. Some of these things, like in-land reefs, could be tourist attractions.

Apart from conservation, governments can also be more pro-active: if you take the warming and acidification of the oceans as inevitable, you can turn to the question how to re-stock the ocean with fish and other organisms that do well in warmer and more acid waters. Of course, nature itself will experiment with this, but governments can give nature a helping hand. We can try to genetically engineer new fish species or mass-raise those species which we know are more suited for the new climate. Such initiatives would of course greatly benefit from having a database of ocean life conserved somewhere. And it of course will be a case of hit-and-miss as the long history of introducing new species in Australia has shown. Learning how to engineer the fish and other marine life we want is not something we can do overnight and there is a government role in coordinating a knowledge base in that area.

Analogue to how governments have a role to play in maintaining and increasing the stock of fish, there is a role for government in maintaining biodiversity and nature parks on land. Gene banks, artificial species, artificial habitats, etc. are obvious things governments can get involved in. To some extent, we already are involved in such thing. The Australian National Botanic Gardens for instance already stores seeds of over 5000 different  plants and such programs would seem worth expanding.

The main areas in which active government intervention specific to Australia would seem desirable are hence in terms of our unique natural habitats and waters. One would want to invest in our ability to re-stock habitats and to engineer species and plants capable of thriving in the new conditions. The two tasks, habitat conservation and habitat experimentation, are both long-term enterprises where the 10 billion dollars currently spent on symbolic measures would go a long way to helping us prepare for the climate changes ahead.

13 Responses to "Climate Change: how can we adapt?"
  1. Talk of large scale geo-engineering, genetically engineered fish and resdesigned ecosystems is far more pie-in-the-sky than renewable energy technology, which you poo-poo earlier in the article.
    Natural ecosystems are chaotic systems – the idea that you could design one to be long-term stable is utter hubris.
    You may well be right that the propects for effective global action to reduce emissions are slim – but if so, we’re basically f*cked.  There’s no point putting your faith (and money) into science-fiction schemes – you might as well spend up big to go out in style.

  2. As a rule of thumb, in the course of 10 years we are talking about a warming of 0.1 degree Celsius, an increase in sea levels by 5 centimetres, and about a 0.5% increase in rainfall per 10 years.
    Does the fact that you’re wrong/ignorant about this make any difference to your assessment? Under BAU, the temperature increase is more likely to be 4 – 7 degrees by 2100, and the sea level increase a metre or more. meanwhile, wet places will tend to get wetter, dry places drier.

    You would be forgiven for not noticing any changes in your lifetime
    You would need forgiveness, since it’ll be more than bloody obvious! 

  3. kme,
    you are being fatalistic. In many ways, managing, creating, and conserving eco-systems is nothing new. Neither is genetic experimentation with crops and animals. We have gardens in the desert, weird-looking cats, desease-resistant crops, land-scaped gardens full of exotic flowers, etc. I am merely proposing an extension of the basic principles. Have a little faith in science!
    we are already having this particular discussion at troppo. As a commenter there pointed out, a quicker pace of assumed change merely strengthens the argument for becoming more serious about adaptation. And even under the most extreme climate scenarios, we are talking about a warming of 0.06 degrees per year, or 3 degrees every 50 years. Still very slow from a human perspective. Emigrating from Northern Europe to Brisbane is an increase of 12 degrees, worth 2 centuries under the most extreme scenarios!

  4. Wow. I have to say, I am somewhat disturbed by your attitude to this issue, dear author. Creating gene banks in isolated lagoons because we have raped the ocean to the extent it is barren? Geo-engineering to try and stabilise local climate patterns? I am really depressed that this what you seem to consider our best options. How about human population control?? How about international fishing moratoriums? How about not hauling coal out of the ground so China can burn it? How about, although it would cause short term pain for billions, actually getting serious about saving our planet, and by proxy our species?

    Since the looming destruction of our natural resources poses such a threat and such a massive cost to our existing status quo, why don’t we just do WHATEVER POSSIBLE to mitigate the impact of our current lifestyle. If it means imposing costly and perhaps inefficient taxes, bans, etc, then do it, since the consequences of doing nothing (to me, at least) are even higher.

    If we have to stop mining to preserve the land, if we impose a ban on all fishing in territorial waters, if we close down the logging industry and enact the carbon tax, let’s do it. Although we can’t protect the climate and everything else that spans borders (and is thus subject to the actions of other less environmentally conscious countries), we can at least protect our own back yard, and pray that someone out there sees one of the worlds major economies taking drastic measures to change course, and decides to follow suit. 

    TL:DR    WE SIMPLY CANNOT DO NOTHING. Living hard, in terms of reduced incomes, investment, etc, may be a price to pay to ensure nature is still there in 50 years, or 100, or 10,000. 

  5. brian – if Australia alone did those things it would make no or little difference to the outcome. Paul doesn’t think anyone else is going to do anything serious and hence his suggestions of what Australia could do. I’m not so pessimistic about what other countries will do and neither is Mckibbin – Ergas was very skeptical that anyone else will do much. They won’t do enough fast enough to avoid major damage though but I still think it will be a lot better than business as usual.

  6. This article shows incredible ignorance. Have you even talked to a climate scientists about the likely temperature rise with BAU emissions? If we’re looking at 800 ppm we’re looking at much more than 0.1 degrees per decade – thats before likely feedback effects.
    You do realise that models are already predicting that the Amazon could be destroyed permanently by mid century? (In the process releasing a hell of a lot of carbon)
    That there’s 100’s of gigatonnes of carbon that are likely to be released from artic permafrost?
    This isn’t fatalism – this is squarely on the cards. I think you need to reexamine your expectations.
    Your ideas about geoengineering or genetically modifying our way out of these problems are ludicrous. The problem is far to big.
    Yes we need to be serious about adaptation but your blasé dismissal of mitigation is premature. The only way that you can dismiss the world acting on this issue is if you believe the world will willingly walk into disaster. Do you seriously believe that? 

  7. Brian and Stuart,
    I have talked at length in previous blogs about my reasons for not expecting mitigation to work, the options for geo-engineering, and various comments on the state of play in climate science. Start here: and otherwise you can trawl through the archives here or at troppo where there is 4 years of stuff.

    Suffice it to say, yes I do believe emission policies are hopeless and Monday’s meetings made me even more pessimistic about mitigation. I hadnt yet fully realised that the current plan for the next 40 years is for Australia to do very little adapting to a low-carbon world and instead we intend to pay poor countries to emit even less than they are doing now, whilst every prognosis is for a massive increase in emissions in China, India, and other poor countries.
    I am amazed such ‘mitigation’ plans are taken even remotely seriously and that people who say they are genuinely concerned about our climate accept such obvious fig-leafs as a source of comfort. This willful gullibility accentuates my distaste for the hypocrisy of frequent flyers pretending they are the saviours of the planet because they adopt a line of ‘dont do what I do, do as I say’. If they truly cared about the planet and our climate they would be much more serious about geo-engineering and adaptation rather than defend their inaction by talking about how severe the problem is going to be and accepting a policy raindance.

  8. Paul, “managing, creating and conserving” eco-systems absolutely is something new – we are adept at managing, creating and conserving monocultures (for example, vast fields of low-genetic-variation wheat) but this is the polar opposite of a functioning ecosystem.
    We also have a menagerie of renewable energy systems developed over many years – solar PV, hydro, geothermal, wind, wave and solar thermal – but if you posit that these say little about what energy sources we can develop in the future then you must recognise that the same is true about our desinger cat breeds (which are merely a thin genetic veneer anyhow – such breeds quickly revert to their ancient genetic roots in the wild).

  9. Paul,
    I’m not necessarily saying that the solution to the problem you’ve outlined is wrong.
    I’m saying the world you describe doesn’t exist. 
    We have at least 0.1 degrees a decade locked in at current atmospheric concentration of CO2. If we keep adding to the atmospheric stock of CO2 this will only accelerate. Then you need to take into account the likely feedback affects.
    We know that reducing emissions is not particularly costly. And all we need internationally is a move toward action in China and the US and the rest of the world will follow. This isn’t a huge ask in the medium term as the climate threat becomes more clear. 
    While I agree that there may be a place for geoengineering, it is only a stop gap solution that may be useful to put off change for a couple of decades and thus avoid potentially devastating feedback effects. It is like adaptation – important but wholly inadequate.
    Please stop posing your ignorance as contrarianism. You’re simply wrong. 

  10. This seems like a rather pointless question to ask from a clever economist like yourself. The answer should be already known to you. The market will find solutions when demand reaches the required level, thinking ahead just smacks of nanny state socialism and picking winners – you might as well try mitigation if you think you can “plan” your way to adaptation.

  11. Stuart,
    You and others are remarkably gullible when it comes to assertions about how easy it is to get international cooperation. I am basically calling you hopelessly naive about this and the best you can come up with is bland statements about how you ‘know’ the rest of the world will fall into line with the US and China. Apart from the obvious observation that the US is nowhere near a commitment on this and that the Chinese have made no promise to reduce their emissions at all (only to slightly improve their efficiency, which they can do without much problems given their undervalued yuan, whilst their emission output level is set to sky-rocket further), just how do you imagine China and the US are going to force others to do their bidding? You put forth an article of faith, not a reasoned position.

    As to the 0.1 degrees, I put that up because it is the current level of change. That seems a reasonable starting number as it refers to the background we currently have. Even under several orders of magnitude higher rates of change is it true that it will appear a creeping change from the position of a human life.

    As to accusations of ignorance, why dont you spend 5 minutes trying to find out what I have already said and published on climate change and see if you can find any hint that I might know more than you suspect about climate change. It is an irritating habit of many who ‘believe’ in mitigation to presume ignorance of their opponents and then display that same trait so readily themselves.


    no-one else but the Australian government will save Australian habitats. Fortunately, it doesnt need to coordinate with others to give it a try and hence there is some hope of success.

    agreed that the road to adaptation is one that presumes a great increase in our current knowledge of eco-systems, though i wasnt just thinking of how we have sofar managed to create monocultures. I was also thinking of our ability to create elaborate gardens, inland aquaria, complex breeding programs in zoos, etc. They are nowhere near as sophisticated as one would like for adaptation to major changes, but you will have to admit its a start.

  12. Paul, you mention a rise in temperature of 0.06 degrees per year which over a 50 year period equals 3 degrees overall, ‘still very slow from a human perspective’. It’s my understanding that rise in temperature is measured from the mean earth surface temperature, which is about 13.7 degrees. A rise of 3 degrees on that basis means a rise in global temperature of around 22%, hardly what I’d call very slow from any stakeholder’s perspective.

  13. Michael, I’m not sure using 0 degrees celsius is the appropriate base for your calculation that 16.7 degrees is 22% warmer than 13.7 degrees.  Absolute zero, which is -273 degrees celsius, would be the appropriate base for the calculation.  Every degree above this warms the Earth by the same amount, 0 degrees is just a fairly arbitrary historical point marked by the point at which water boils.  This makes the rise of 3 degrees only a 1.05% warming.
    Also, adaptation would seem to have some features of a public good (although it obviously depends on what the adaptation is) which would mean we can’t rely solely on the market to provide the right amount as you suggest above.

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