The latest argument from climate sceptics that we can manage escalating risks may be flawed, but it could still aid those who want to see more climate action
George Monbiot has a necessarily angry and hard-hitting column in today's Guardian analysing the staggeringly reckless response to yesterday's IPCC report from those who think it highlights humanity's ability to adapt to climate impacts.
As the Telegraph yesterday ran an editorial seeking to downplay the IPCC's projections and suggest that "instead of continued doom-mongering... thought needs to be given to how mankind might adapt to the climatic realities", Monbiot challenged the growing network of columnists who seem to think the global economy can and should simply adapt to climate change to identify which bit of the world they are prepared to lose.
"When our environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assures us that climate change 'is something we can adapt to over time' or Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian today, says that we should move towards 'thinking intelligently about how the world should adapt to what is already happening', what do they envisage?" he asks. "Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? Have they any clue about what this would cost? Of what the impacts would be on the people breezily being told to live with it?"
Monbiot is entirely right to ask these questions, not least because those who suggest the response to climate change should shift in its entirety from mitigation to adaptation so rarely want to answer them in any meaningful way. Although, coincidentally, one of the cheerleaders of the adaptation-only paradigm, economist and Telegraph contributor Andrew Lilico, did hint at a potential response to these questions yesterday afternoon. In the wake of the IPCC report's publication, I found myself in a Twitter exchange with Lilico in which I challenged his assertion that the report reinforced his argument that climate mitigation efforts should be killed off in favour of adaptation. "Any thoughts on how Tropics adapt to 4C world?" I asked. "I imagine Tropics adapt to 4C world by being wastelands with few folk living in them," Lilico responded. "Why's that not an option?"
And to think, those advocating an end to efforts to tackle greenhouse gas emissions get upset if you accuse them of callous recklessness.
However, while I am tempted to join Monbiot in "lashing out at the entire town" over this latest strand of climate scepticism (and while not all of those proposing an adapt-only approach to climate change are sceptical about climate science there are plenty who have a long track record of dismissing scientists warnings on this topic), I'd argue the increased focus on adaptation actually provides some cause for optimism for those of us who want to see much more ambitious action on climate change across the board.
Firstly, in calling for more focus on climate adaptation the Telegraph and its supporters have created a perverse consensus on climate change. If they want more investment in adaptation measures part of the response from green businesses and NGOs should be, "great, let's get on with it". Environmentalists should call what I suspect is a bluff from an adaptation lobby that in large part still refuses to accept the warnings presented by the IPCC and demand its support for the campaign to increase spending on flood defences and deliver improved supply chain resilience. Green campaigners should ask, "if you want adaptation why aren't you criticising inadequate adaptation budgets? If you think we can effectively adapt, where are your proposals for ensuring agricultural yields don't collapse? If you think the abandonment of certain areas is likely, how do you propose to maintain global security during such a transition?
As the IPCC report makes painfully plain, the adaptation-only argument is seriously flawed, but it could have the silver lining of making concerted action to enhance climate resilience more likely.
Secondly, the emergence of this adaptation argument highlights the extent to which the climate sceptic community has fragmented in recent years into those who cling to the idea that manmade climate change is not happening, those who think it is happening but won't be that bad, and those who think it is happening, it will probably be bad, but we can adapt to it. Significantly, the more influential commentators and politicians who are sympathetic to climate sceptic arguments tend to be found in the third of these cohorts, which in some ways is fortunate, because it is an argument that is so self-evidently weak that it is highly unlikely that it will gain serious traction with either policy makers or the public.
The "climate change isn't happening" or "it won't be that serious" hypotheses are collapsing under the weight of scientific certainty and, more importantly, real world evidence. It is hard to credibly maintain there isn't a problem when the evidence of both historic climate records and peoples' own eyes tells them that there is. But the adaptation-only argument similarly fails this "seeing is believing" test. It begs Monbiot's question: "If a small, rich, well-organised nation cannot protect its people from a winter of exceptional rainfall - which might have been caused by less than one degree of global warming - what hope do other nations have, when faced with four degrees or more?"
It also rests on a dodgy rationale that similarly invites public rejection. "Climate change is happening and is probably extremely serious" acknowledge advocates of a 100 per cent adaptation approach, "so let's do nothing about it besides building a few more sea walls". In accepting the scientific terms of the debate, often for the first time, those who say they want nothing more than adaptation acknowledge the gravity of the risks we face and then run straight into the scientific warnings that adaptation alone will not be enough. They also highlight the paucity of their ideas for dealing with related environmental challenges such as air pollution, ocean acidification, energy insecurity, and biodiversity loss - how do you get vulnerable species to fit into your adaptation strategy? Answer, you don't.
Those who want us to focus solely on adaptation invite incredulity from political leaders, business executives, and a public who increasingly accept the need and attractiveness of decarbonisation, as well as the economic growth on offer, and are doubtful that adaptation at the necessary scale is even possible, let alone desirable. The adaptation school of thought could prove hugely damaging to action on climate change if too widely adopted, but I'd argue it is unlikely to gain too much traction in a world where the two largest clean tech markets are the US and China, and many of the world's most powerful multinationals want more ambitious efforts to cut emissions.
Moreover, it also opens up an opportunity for dialogue between environmentalists and some of their more influential detractors that has not been there in the past. The one thing the likes of Lilico and Times columnist Tim Montgomerie can agree on with most green campaigners is that current efforts to sharply reduce global greenhouse gas emissions have not yet proved successful. We may disagree on what to do about this, but it is a much shorter journey from "let's focus on adaptation" to "let's also focus on new ways to cut emissions", than it is from "climate change isn't happening".
They won't admit it, but those who want climate change strategy to be boiled down to a focus on adaptation are edging towards the green consensus on the urgent need to tackle escalating climate risks. In challenging them to tell us precisely how they plan to deliver such adaptation we might just convince some of the cheerleaders for this reckless strategy to acknowledge that we probably should continue to pursue mitigation measures as well, just to be on the safe side.