10 Oct 2011

We're screwed. Now what?

It's well known that there are two responses to climate change: mitigate the problem by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the problem by preparing for the consequences.

I've blogged for several years on the importance of mitigation (via, e.g., a carbon tax), but two trends mean that I will spend more time on adaptation (as I did in my book).

First, there's the politics of mitigating a global public bad. I assigned The Logic of Collective Action to my Berkeley students to help them understand the nature of skewed costs and benefits when it comes to collective goods (the atmosphere). I ran a simulation with climate negotiators and found they suffered from the same problem.

Second (and related), we've seen a huge failure to make even a fraction of the necessary effort on mitigation. Republicans (mostly) who claim that mitigation will be useless created that result by failing to pursue mitigation. The financial meltdown (tied to unsustainable practices, so a double whammy) mean that there's little tolerance for paying to avoid events 20-50 years down the line.

How are people absorbing this emerging fact? Some are ever-hopeful of a global governance miracle; others are desperate but know nothing except to persevere.

I have three ideas:
  1. The Earth will "survive" -- as it has before -- even if 50% of species are wiped out.
  2. Some humans will make it, but the transition will be costly.
  3. Most important now, mitigation-focused investments (solar, biofuels, zero-emissions stuff) are wasted if there's no "carbon reduction payback" -- this means that a lot of projects are going to turn instantly unprofitable.
Bottom Line: It's time to adapt: lift your skirts for floods and prepare for droughts.