Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hans von Storch: Adaptation and Mitigation

This is chapter 6 (without footnotes) of my article On Adaptation – a Secondary Concern? published in 2009 in The European Physical Journal - Special Topics, 176: 13-20 DOI 10.1140/epjst/e2009-01145-0. The manuscript was originally presented at the W.E. Heraeus Seminar: A Physics Perspective on Energy Supply and Climate Change - Prediction, Mitigation and Adaptation, 26-29 May 2008, in the Physikzentrum Bad Honnef.

In a rational world, the state of which is known or can be reliably predicted, allowing optimal planning, the right path to go would be to assess the costs of all possible options of how to deal with the future climate change. One extreme option is not to act at all; then society will develop in an unchecked manner with emission increasing freely. Such a development will be associated with costs, in terms of money, life and morale. Another extreme is to reduce emissions; also this option is associated with costs – mostly in terms of money but also in terms of life and morale. The best decision in this rational ”cost-benefit” framework would be that mix of actions that goes with least costs. The problem is that the costs are unknown; everybody determines the costs differently; the knowledge about climate sensitivity, vulnerability and counter measures is not only fragile but also unavoidably loaded with cultural or even ideological presumptions.

But nevertheless – we have to take a decision. How much effort should be directed toward reducing emissions, and how much toward adaptation? The public debate in Germany and Scandinavia favours the „protection of climate“, i.e., mitigation, reduction of emissions. Al Gore declared “we have to be careful not to siphon off political will from job one, prevention, and dissipate it with adaptation”. This decision has the advantage that it seems to be morally superior – everybody feels the obligation to protect the Creation. Another advantage is that specific questions about the implications on regional and local scales can be qualified as secondary. The response strategy is obvious: reduction of emissions as much as possible. However: anthropogenic climate change is ongoing now; it can not be stopped; all what we can do is to limit climate change. The foreseeable future will hardly see any reduction of global emissions – but merely reductions of global emission growth.  If we continue with business-as-usual and if no deus-ex-machina technological fit surprisingly emerges, we may well end up with a tripling or maybe even quadrupling of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at the end of the current century. Such levels will have severe implications. Making serious attempts to reduce emissions, we may be able to limit the increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations to a doubling of pre-industrial levels.  “Doubling” is to be considered an achievement; a successful limitation. But also a doubling will have serious implications.

Therefore we have to consider adaptation to climate change, not instead of, but parallel to mitigation of climate change. The goal is to limit the accumulation of greenhouse gases to “only” a doubling (or any other achievable significant reduction) and to prepare societies and ecosystems to adapt to unavoidable future changes.

Can we adapt? I believe we can, as long as the changes are not too radical. For instance a melting of the West-Antarctic Ice Shelf would cause very serious challenges, which could hardly be mastered. However, such an event is not probable in the foreseeable future. But what about warming and heat waves at mid latitudes, the spread of malaria, increased frequency of severe flooding, Bangladesh – all these topical and typical examples of imminent climate disasters of the future? Can be adapt to these threats? I believe that we can. But this requires that we begin to better adapt to these threats now, considering also the unavoidable lead times. An added aspect is that climate is dangerous already today, even if, probably, less so than 50 years from now due to the further human interference with climate. The disastrous 1953 storm surge in the Netherlands, is a good example of this sort of “normal” threats – and it is just 50 years ago. The more recent events of various river floodings in Germany (Elbe, Odra and Rhine), the disaster brought out by tropical storms at New Orleans in 2005 and to Myanmar’s coastal regions in 2008 are also in the range of normal, but rare hazards. In theses cases, society turned out to be badly prepared.

A closer inspection of these climate impacts reveals that in all cases climate plays a certain role – but that social, technological and economic factors play an equally if not more important role. Take two examples, heat waves and malaria.

The heat wave of 1995 in Chicago was analysed in detail (Klinenberg, 2002). It caused many deaths. The people died because of heat stress, but they would not have died if the city would have been properly prepared for the situation. The people who perished were not a random sample of the population; they were old, poor and lonely people; they did not dare to leave their insufficiently ventilated apartments because of real or perceived dangers of being assaulted by criminals. In the 1950s people would sleep during heat waves in the parks of the city, but in the 1990s people were afraid of visiting the parks after dark. Other cities are prepared for such a situation; endangered individuals are contacted when extreme temperatures are expected, and brought into air-conditioned shopping malls. It was the failure of social mechanisms, the absence of adequate adaptation which made the extreme temperatures lethal. “Climate” may even serve in this situation as a perfect scapegoat for the city administration – the killer was the heat wave. “We did not make the heat; we were not responsible”. Or, as Berthold Brecht’s Johanna is saying: “The calamity comes like the rain; made by nobody“.

Malaria (e.g., Reiter, 2001) – lay people widely believe that the spatial distribution of malaria a determined by the air temperature. But malaria was common in Europe up into the first half of the 20th century. In wetlands of The Netherlands and England, life expectancy was only half of that in other regions. That people in these regions no longer suffer from malaria is not to be explained by lower temperatures – but by modern hygienical and medical standards and better land usage. The return of malaria in some parts of the previous Soviet Union is also not related to a warming of climate but to the troubled medical systems in those parts of the world. Malaria is a problem of poor people. Thus, not only the heat wave case but also the malaria case demonstrates that the allegedly climatic problems were primarily social problems. Malaria is associated with poverty, and it deserves our full attention now and not only in some remote future, when climate change will have caused additional problems.

Neither malaria nor heat stress is adequately dealt with by reduced usage of fossil fuels and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases; the proper response is to make people and societies less vulnerable to these dangers. This should be done now. If it turns out, as we expect, that these dangers are getting more serious as a consequence of climate change, then the adaptive measures will be even more useful. There is no doubt hat we can reduce vulnerability today. Instead, many people concentrate on reducing enhanced vulnerabilities in some future, and forget about the basic fact that climate has always been und remains to be dangerous, even without anthropogenic interference.

We will have to live with anthropogenic climate change, because it will not be possible to avoid it completely – at least unless surprise technical fixes become available. And we are able to do so, if we begin well in time to prepare ourselves for what may come in the future. Humans, societies and ecosystems have proven to be flexible in the past; they will master this challenge also. But it is prudent to reduce the climatic change as much as we can without compromising other important goals of sustainable and other essential conditions. In short, reduction as much as possible, but only if affordable in terms of social costs.

Klinenberg, E., 2002: Heat Wave. A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-44321-3, 305 pp.

Reiter, P., 2001: Climate change and mosquito-borne disease. Environmental Health Perspectives 109, Suppl.1, 141-161


sien said...

Fine post.

Relating to previous posts is this an area climatologists are well equipped to handle? This is not to fault your analysis, merely to suggest to others that this is where anthropogenic global warming (AGW) research gets terribly complicated even excluding differences regarding climatology.

In Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It (2007) malaria gets 8 pages ( 94-102 ). Lomborg furthers the point about the limited relationship between climate and malaria by pointing out that malaria was endemic in 36 US States as late as the 1940s.

He goes further than you and suggests that combating AGW is an ineffective way to combat malaria.

Hans von Storch said...

I do understand too little about Malaria that I should formulate policy suggestions. Maybe Björn does also not know too many details of a possibly complicated story, but Reiter is in expert - and I just wanted to tell "Malaria may seem an easy case, but it is not. In particular it is mostly not a temperature story".
Also in Europe Malaria was widespread.
-- other than Malaria: This case demonstrates the need for cooperation between impact researchers and climate researchers, when dealing with the effect climate may have on health. It is not only so that climate people are often naive with impacts, also impacts people are often insufficiently prepared to deal with climate-related issues.
-- Hans

Anonymous said...

I agree indeed with this sensible post. It makes sense whether you buy the danger of CO2 or not.

But it has other advantages. It points to one of the most harmful aspects of AGW alarmists. By insisting so much -and so only, in CO2, the danger is to forget the myriad of global problems we have. Humanitarian and environmental problems

Don Shor said...

Thank you for this. It is frustrating to me that 192 nations could gather to debate mitigation, in a process whose outcome was nearly guaranteed to fail, and that so little energy and effort is spent on adaptation. In fact, often adaptation is portrayed as being in conflict with mitigation.

We had better start helping Bangladesh plan now for future flood events -- since they already flood now -- as these things take lead time, planning, and financial resources.

Deforestation, desertification, flood control, tropical diseases, water resource issues, activities that generate soot and aerosols; more focus on these known environmental problems which are present NOW would perhaps be a better use of the time and efforts of government officials and NGO's.

It is possible that our obsession with CO2 is actually diverting resources from other climate-change factors and from pursuing adaptation strategies. Atmospheric carbon may be a useful measure of the impacts of climate change, but is it really appropriate to focus so narrowly on it?

I think that Dr. Pielke Sr. would agree with much of what you have to say here.

Peter Heller said...

@Hans von Storch

It is not easy for me to perform this discussion in English (but I will try and use it also as a training session in foreign language). I plan to write a more sophisticated answer in my own blog during the next days in German to direct the attention of my readers to your essay, which is in my opinion an important one.

At the moment the only point I can agree to is, that adaptation is neglected in the actual debate.

To start the discussion, I would like to make three very provocative points:

1.Mitigation and adaptation could not be combined. They are not two sides of a coin, they are substantial different. Mitigation is based on the overall assumption of reducing carbondioxide in the atmosphere. It therefore needs a common approach of nearly all countries in the world, it needs some type of global regulation and global government. Adaptation is based on local, individual challenges different from country to country. It needs the freedom for all states to act independent of a global regulation. The ground on which adaptation is possible especially for the non-industrialized countries is a fast development, which could be provided only by using coal, oil and gas.

2. You are right in the description, that mitigation is associated with costs. But the most important costs of mitigation are the profits not realized by not using fossil fuels. The warm world projected by the IPCC is a very rich world, a world with the opportunity to finance the necessary adaptation measures out of the money earned by using fossil resources. We have to consider, that we do not use fossil resources for fun. By burning oil, coal and gas we earn not only their opportunities (energy, mobility), we earn money. To calculate the costs of mitigation one has to add the wealth not be created by renouncement. I am especially convinced, that mitigation leads into a future, where adaptation measures cannot be taken due to a lack of wealth.

3. You write, that mitigation seems to be morally superior, because everybody feels the obligation to protect the Creation. No, I do not. First I do not believe in any Creator, maybe God or another “intelligent designer”. Therefore there is no creation mankind is responsible to take care of. There is only a nature, in which mankind is responsible to take care of its own survival. Yes, nature is needed, because it provides us with things like air, water and food (and – minor important – with some emotional oriented opportunities, like recreation). What we have to do is to develop technologies and to take measures that can boost natures abilities to support us. To rise the amount of carbondioxide as food for plants could be one important measure. Conservation activities are other examples. Genetic engineering is another one. In general I see that technologies and measures for this approach are strongly linked to adaptation – not to mitigation.

Werner Krauss said...

Concerning malaria: I remember a lecture by Richard Tol, some years ago in Hamburg. He showed a map of Africa: in all the countries where Cubans had intervened, malaria had disappeared. Communism is good against malaria? In any case, education in hygiene, a functioning health system, schools etc. are the best remedy against this disease.
This is exactly the problem with adaptation: it is highly political.

Maybe that's the reason why Al Gore initially wanted to separate these discussions: adaptation would have politicized the climate debate in the US even more - adaptation is about state intervention (remember Katrina!). By the way, Al Gore changed his opinion in this respect and considers now adaptation as equally important (as far as I have heard).

Harry Eagar said...

Malaria is the easy case. Like Hansen disease, it is correlated very highly with poverty and not at all with climate, even if most people associate both diseases with the tropics (because that's where the poverty is).

In many places (but not all) malaria is comparatively easy to control.

There could be other diseases (visceral leishmanniasis) whose vectors, unlike malaria mosquitos, have been unable to expand to the temperate zone, but which might do so in a warmer world.

Although I have ridiculed the attention paid to malaria by the alarmists (because they do not understand the etiology), there will be a good argument for not applying the "correct lesson" of malaria indiscriminantly to genuine tropical diseases.

A fairly good primer about this is contained in a book forthcoming from Princeton U. Press, 'What's Eating Me?' by Eugene Kaplan, a parasitologist.

(Forthcoming means May: I have an advance copy.)

richardtol said...

@Werner Kraus
Malaria is mitigated by basic health care. Communist countries tend to invest more in that. Hammers and sickles are not necessary, though.

There is another twist. Greenhouse gas emission reduction is ineffective unless most major emitters do it. Adaptation, on the other hand, can be done locally or nationally.

P Gosselin said...

Overall there seems to be a faulty belief among many that Nature is our friend or something and that we have to be nice to her, otherwise she (in my culture Nature is a she) will mercilessly show her scorn and punish us brutally. Al Gore and others keep warning us of this. That's a very religious belief. Very unscientific.

The reality is very different of course. Nature is the bitter enemy of the human species, of all species in fact. Nature is always vicious. She is always trying to kill us. She has a mighty and wide-ranging arsenal to throw at us. It begins with natural disasters of every kind, wind, snow, rain, drought, floods, heat, ice, lightning, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on. Then she throws every kind of micro-organism at us like bacteria, viruses, germs, parasites, fungus, cancers and so on. Worst, they keep mutating. There are many predators too. She even uses such dirty tricks like solar eclipses, which blinded early man, who did not know better to look away. Isn't She lovely? Nature is in fact really nasty, and she won't be appeased by us changing our light bulbs. Climate changes like ice ages and hot houses are nothing new. They will come, and they will go. Putting up windmills will not prevent it.

When people say we have to be nice to Nature because she will otherwise bite our heads off if we don't, are talking such pure nonsense. This is just junk religion, bordering on madness. Mitigation is absolute nonsense, a big waste of money. No, we have to practice what got us here in the first place - adaptation, lessons learned, technology. We are all gladiators in Nature's Coliseum. We have been simply thrown in it with the rest of the beasts, and it is up to us to fend for ourselves, never mind if it’s raining or if the sun is shining, find a means to defend yourself!

Fortunately, the prior generations got clever, developed technology (adaptation) and left us with a good head start. But that will not last forever, I fear. Nature will send new enemies. She always does. And unfortunately, Nature has left us to fend against multitudes of stupid and arrogant men as well. These egoistic, blind, stupid men now risk squandering the very head start the generation before us have bestowed upon us.

Marco said...

@Richard Tol:
And there's a twist to the twist: adaptation will be most problematic for many countries who are the least responsible for the problems they face.
Knowing human history, they're unlikely to get help to adapt.

@P Gosselin: I think you are transferring your own beliefs onto others. Yes, nature is cruel anyway. But we know more or less what to expect under the current climate conditions. We're going towards conditions we (=humans) have never known, neither globally, nor regionally. Evolutionary biologists are not too thrilled about the projections. They know what happened in the past with rapid climate changes: major evolutionary pressure. Exciting as a scientist, not so much as a human being: you don't know where it will end up.

richardtol said...

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Our history of "helping" others is not without blemish.

Henk Hak said...

Thank you Hans for a very thoughtful article. (There is a little glitch after chapter 6, somehow the connection with the next page is missing.)
I fully agree mitigation and adaptation both need to be addressed, but mitigation as presently advocated through international binding agreements will never work. China and India will not likely agree to anything that will affect their economies.Carbon trading has become a bit of a scam ( can't find the articles any more on Znet and National Post that remarkably agree). Mitigation however is already happening at the individual level and much more can and will be done. Hybrid and other more efficient cars; more efficient insulation;newer furnaces(; newer solar panels; better energy storage. The near future may well see many of us less dependent on the power grid, a good thing for more than one reason. Just painting our roofs white would have some effect by less heat absorption and less air conditioning.
The Pielke jr article quoting Bill Gates of Januari 21 would agree with you.

itisi69 said...

In nature creations adapt themselves already all the time. In fact it's crucial for species to continue to exist and as far as I know it's done without any intervention of the usual suspects with vested interests.

Marco said...

@Richard Tol:
They're essentially damned if we do, and damned if we don't?

Yes, species adapt all the time. Those that can't, die. It happens continuously. Unfortunately, the history of the earth shows that fast climate changes (and those are *slower* than those that are projected for AGW) have been correlated with significant mass extinctions. We're talking up to 50% of all species. Humans may well be among the lucky one's, but what will take over the place of the extinct species?

no said...

Yes adaptation is the key!!! Humanity is still unable to deal with really human made catastrophes like hunger, wars and economic crises.... Now we think that by reducing CO2 we will change our climate, one of the most complex and non linear phenomena?
I don´t want to go into details about the whole climate change debate.. I am geologist and know that climate change is part of the history of our planet, solar system and even somehow related to the position of our solar system in our galaxy… so…
Of course we need to reduce air pollution in all possible ways. We don´t even need the whole climate discussion to do so, because the social costs of public health due to air pollution are simply astronomic. But there is another crucial point: 70% of the world´s population lives in geologically or climatologically unstable regions. Mega cities are growing without any plan, consideration about infiltration, run off and local heat emission.. A small variability of rainfall causes enormous urban floods .. etc…. The way humanity occupies our planet has to be completely reconsidered.
So far what we need is mitigation and adaptation..
If CO2 reduction helps .. ok, but if we think that this is the essential question, we are on the completely misleading track.
Let´s discuss for example how we spend the global financial resources: just an example: in 2008 the global military spending was around 1,4 TRILLION U$!!! so, any idea?

P Gosselin said...

"But we know more or less what to expect under the current climate conditions."

I have to disagree.
There's a big difference between knowing, and thinking you know.
There are scientists who think quite highly of themselves and are "sure" they know where we're going. But they don't. They're just putting on a nice show.

But I do agree that rapid climate change will come, like it has many times in the past. But it will not be because nature is punishing man for his sins. That's pure baloney.

I also feel compelled to correct you - humans have indeed experienced, and actually thrived under warmer conditions. Some earlier interglacials were warmer than today's. Warming is not going to be the problem in the future.
The problem in the future will continue to be terrible politics. But I guess that's nature. Nature punishes stupidity, and rewards clever adaptation. Mitigation is not clever.

itisi69 said...

Ah yes Marco, the secret Church of the 6th Extinction (2085?)

It's the end of the chain
(Destruction of the feelings)
It's the end of our game
(We're seeing as before)
It's the end of man's evolution
(The end of the evolution)
But nobody hears
The echoes on the wind

The end is near...

P Gosselin said...

Even our current interglacial had much warmer times. Prof. Patzelt and the glaciers have stories to tell.

Henk Hak said...

Dear P Gosselin,
It think it is a sad thing if you can only see nature as our enemy. Nature is not our friend or our enemy. Nature is just nature, and we are part of it and I find it a privilidge.
So if nature is your enemy, how are you going to win your battle against her? If that's how you see it you will always lose, because we all die
in the end.

Marco said...

@P Gosselin:
Let me first explicitely note that I never alluded to nature punishing us for our sins. It would be complete nonsense.
Second, modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) only once experienced (slightly) warmer conditions than those projected for 2100 (even with a 'mere' 2 degrees rise). That was about 130,000 years ago, when 'we' still lived in Africa. Who knows how well we fared at that time?
And finally: I referred to species in general, not humans specifically.

Even some religious people accept reality, just in a different way. Climate change introduces evolutionary pressure. Fact. We cannot control evolutionary pressure. Fact. We might be lucky. We might just as well not. Nature has this eery history of not caring about the successfulness of a species in a prior setting. If you (= a species) don't 'fit', you disappear, and new species ultimately take your place.

_Flin_ said...

I absolutely agree to the post in two points:
1. It is unlikely that we will be able to reduce the amount of GHG in the atmosphere in the near future. A stabilization of GHG in the atmosphere at double pre-Industrialization level would be an achievement. What does this mean? Looking at figure 7.3 in IPCC 4AR that means we have to cut CO2 emissions by 12 gigatonnes CO2 per year worldwide or roughly above 40%. And this will probably only be the first step for reaching a long-term GHG balance. If positive feedbacks exist, we will have to go lower.
2. Even then adaption will be necessary, because a doubling in CO2 will already have impacts. And Adaption won't come for free. For example the EA in UK just estimated that the cost of UK flood protection will double to £1bn a year by 2035.

Nevertheless I want to emphasize that I think that mitigation is with no alternative at all. If we do not mitigate, we may face catastrophic scenarios. Be them West-Antarctic Ice Shelf melting, Greenland Ice Shelf melting, dustbowls, drought, floods, ocean acidification, water scarcity, no more winter olympics, well, you heard of all of them.

ghost said...

I agree with the post... obviously we must adapt and we must mitigate.

but you wrote:
Can we adapt? I believe we can, as long as the changes are not too radical. For instance a melting of the West-Antarctic Ice Shelf would cause very serious challenges, which could hardly be mastered.

well, the WAIS collapse would be radical... but I looked, in the last 140 years the sea level increased by around 20cm, if the current trend will stay the same, it adds 30cm in 100 years, when does the sea level change start to be radical? I could imagine, it is before a WAIS collapse.

The second question: what is, if in some regions the climate change will be radical and in others (most) not? Climate change has different effects in different regions. What is the cost of "loosing" some areas where an adaptation is not possible or too expensive? I mean, global adaptation: I think it will be possible for a long time, but regionally? It is hard to decide. Is this a valid point of concern or is this alarmistic? I do not know.

Mitigation is therefore absolutely necessary, IMHO, maybe also a bit over the comfort limit and as important as adaptation.

Peter Heller said...

@ Hans von Storch

My answer to your text "On Adaptation" is online:

I do hope, that you have time to read it and that it provides you with a useful insight into the mind of a skeptic.