They recognize the need for climate change mitigation but argue that
mitigation-based approaches have run into serious political problems. Furthermore, it is not clear how countries such as China and India are going to enforce mitigation targets domestically even if they were to be persuaded to sign on to mandatory emission reductions. As the vast literature on international treaties produced by political scientists suggest, compliance with these agreements tends to be patchy.
Instead of investing political capital predominantly towards mitigation, we suggest re-orienting the policy focus and paying serious attention to adaptation to climate change. The reality is that the climate is changing and will continue to do so– even if all countries would magically come together and agree on aggressive mitigation targets.
The political opposition to mitigation lies in the fact that mitigation imposes costs on the U.S. fossil fuel and energy intensive sectors while providing benefits that may occur in the long run to a large number of unspecified people anywhere on the globe. Not surprisingly, policy “losers” oppose mitigation policies. Furthermore, the backlash against mitigation might be attributed to the rising economic and political salience of China, the perception that American jobs are being shipped overseas, and that China continues to build coal fired electricity plants while Americans are asked to cut down on emissions. For the West Virginia miner, mitigation implies s/he will lose the major source of her/his livelihood in order to subsidize affluent Chinese or Indian consumers. It is difficult to explain to this miner who is facing economic stress that equity considerations demand that we look at cumulative instead of current emissions.
States, regions and communities that take adaptation seriously would collect taxes for building adaptation measures. These will create the awareness and the motivation for citizens to address the problem of mitigation.
In contrast to mitigation, the political logic of adaptation is compelling. While successful mitigation requires global collective action, adaptation can be successful even when undertaken unilaterally. Importantly, adaptation-related investments create local benefits, not global public goods. Thus, adaptation does not suffer from the free rider problem: those paying for it will also benefit from it. It is difficult to offer the “China excuse” for ignoring adaptation.
By creating local benefits, adaptation creates local constituencies that favor investments in climate change policies. Not only does adaptation deprive politicians of the “China excuse,” it creates new political coalitions to promote pro-environmental policies. As adaptation gathers steam, various groups will begin to recognize the costs of ignoring global climate change. Instead of crowding out mitigation, in the long term, adaptation may create the political support for aggressive mitigation policies.
I think it is high time to make the case for adaptation, yet again. It has been made many times before but not much more than lip service has been paid. Public discourse in the run up to the Paris summit is all about mitigation.
The above paper comes from two political scientists in the USA who have no been at the forefront of climate activism. All the more important to pay attention to their argument. Read their short but powerful article and feel free to comment.