Thursday, September 17, 2015

Confronting the “China Excuse"

In a forthcoming publication for the journal Solutions Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolšak from University of Washington (Seattle) make a case for climate change adaptation.

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.


Anonymous said...

While successful mitigation requires global collective action, adaptation can be successful even when undertaken unilaterally

Und jedes Land/Region/Person/Firma kann sich das gleichermaßen leisten? Wie sieht die Anpassung bspw. an die Versauerung der Meer aus? Nur so Fragen...

Eine mögliche Adaption heißt Hin- und Herwandern. Wie man gerade sieht, ist das immer völlig problemlos. Ist diese Adaption dann verboten oder heißt die Adaption an die Adaption Grenzen bauen? Hm. Determinismus hin oder her.

Klar, man kann resignieren und sagen, scheiß drauf, dann pass ICH mich eben an und die anderen sind mir egal. Nur ein globaler Klimawandel bleibt eine globale Herausforderung, die man nicht nur auf regionale Anpassungen herunterbrechen kann. Jedenfalls hat mir das noch keiner gezeigt, dass das geht.

Hm. Ich bin skeptisch. Adaption ohne Emissionsverringerung ist keine Lösung, sondern basiert auf irgendeine Hoffnung. Und natürlich, Adaption ist trotzdem nötig, aber man sollte doch versuchen, die Notwendigkeit dazu und Umfang so klein wie möglich zu halten.


hvw said...

If global warming would only produce hazards to which adaption was more realistic than immediate aggressive mitigation, then it would not be such a big problem at all. If laypeople such as Prakash and Dolšak would at least consult the tech. summary of the WGII report before having a try at climate policy advice, there were way less irrelevant publications.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


please read again. Nowhere do they say that mitigation is not necessary.


In the interest of enabling a debate would you care to make a succinct point? It is of no help to point to a report in order to kill discussion.

And: Do I detect some sneering against laypeople? Not everyone who makes a valuable contribution to the debate can be in the inner circle (are you part of it?)

Anonymous said...

Präzisieren wir mal: Es gibt nicht ein Problem mit der Politik in den USA im Allgemeinen, sondern nur mit dem Teil der Politiker, die ihre Aussagen zum Klimawandel gewöhnlich mit den Worten "I'm not a scientist, but..." einleiten.

Dazu zwei Gedanken:
1.) Ich teile die stillschweigende Prämisse nicht, dass diese Sorte von Politikern auch in 10 bis 20 Jahren ihre Partei dominieren werden. Der Ansatz der beiden Autoren ist sehr langfristig angelegt. Ich meine, dass in diesem Zeitraum die GOP längst wieder zu einer normalen Partei geworden ist.

2.) Ich meine zu beobachten, dass es eine starke Korrelation zwischen der Bereitschaft zu Mitigation und der Bereitschaft zu Adaption gibt. Man vergleiche z.B. Kalifornien mit Florida. Da Klimawandel in Florida ja als nichtexistentes Problem gilt und von der Politik emsig beschwiegen wird, gibt es auch keine langfristig angelegten Adaptionspläne z.B. gegen den Meeresspiegelanstieg. Natürlich: Wenn Miami einen Fuß unter Wasser steht, dann wird auch die Bereitschaft zur Adaption da sein.

Die Autoren argumentieren, dass wenn der Nutzen und Erfolg von Adaption gegen Klimawandelfolgen spürbar ist, dass dann auch die Bereitschaft zur Mitigation steigt. Ich würde meinen, wenn die Klimawandelfolgen deutlich spürbar sind, dann lande ich sowieso bei meinem Punkt 1.), dann ist diese Kaste von Politikern sowieso ausgestorben.

Nebenbei: Die Ideologie der "I'm not a scientist, but..."-Politiker beinhaltet auch einen möglichst schwachen Staat mit möglichst wenig Steuereinnahmen. Das sind nicht gerade die besten Voraussetzungen, um kostspielige Adaptionsprogramme in die Wege zu leiten.


hvw said...


In the interest of enabling a debate would you care to make a succinct point? It is of no help to point to a report in order to kill discussion.

The point is that "adaption" and "mitigation" are in totally different categories. Suggesting to replace one by the other, if only partly, or do one before the other, like here, is not even wrong. If you look at the list of CC induced hazards of most concern, the ones that people who study that stuff term "catastrophic", you will find that there are no reasonable possibilities to deal with them by anything commonly understood as "adaption". E.g. global-scale evacuation of the coastlines is "adaption", but also a catastrophy in itself and less realistic than the "big transformation" right now, don't you think?

The related real-world "adaption" is building the sea-walls at Cuxhaven higher. True, necessary, but doesn't help with the problem above. "Adaption" is bound to the local/regional spatial scale and to a planning horizon of a couple of decades, maximum, in a well-organized society. And assuming our models have any predictive skill on those scales, which is not the case for most important variables. There is no such thing as century scale global adaption, except in science fiction, but that is where the catastrophies are (the scales not the fiction :).

We are not even adapted to the current climate. That is why the emerging "climateservices-industry" (which is supposed to provide "climate adaption"- help) will move towards ditching climate model predictions, which do not help, and start properly analyzing extreme events in historical time series. My prediction, you heard it here first :)

And: Do I detect some sneering against laypeople? Not everyone who makes a valuable contribution to the debate can be in the inner circle (are you part of it?)

You might have guessed that I consider this "contribution" as the opposite of "valuable". It is just good form to read a bit about the topic you write about, before you push it into the world. Nothing against trans-disciplinary efforts, on the contrary. But that means getting to know the other field, not ignoring it and making things up.

I have zero career-related or finacial stakes in the climate discussion. I do read relevant papers on a regular basis and occasionally discuss them with people who you surely classify as "inner circle". Where does that put me in you circle classification scheme?

Paul Matthews said...

I am a bit puzzled why hwv is describing two professors from University of Washington as "lay people"? A minute with google scholar shows that both authors have a relevant publication track record of 15 years.

It is interesting to see these ideas appearing in academia, though I should imagine that they will have difficulty getting this published.
The paper is quite short, and as you say these points have been made elsewhere, for example by Andrew Lilico:

"We have failed to prevent global warming, so we must adapt to it"
"But the Chinese and Indians and Americans will never agree, ..."

What I think would be interesting would be an article discussing not just the political arguments used against mitigation, but also the political arguments used against adaptation.

Werner Krauss said...


this argument is almost as old as the climate debate; for example, Stehr and von Storch used it already many, many years (almost decades) ago. It appears always in a different context; it was used against environmental alarmism and / or against the COP negotiations; it is used by skeptics as well as by eco-modernists against no-growth campaigns, or now against the "Chinese excuse". Mostly, adaptation is used as a rhetorical strategy in the climate debate, but it is hardly looked at as a practice in reality.

To me, the claim of the authors of the paper sounds pretty naive:

"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."

To imagine the world as a market and life as an economic strategy as the authors do is one thing; in my opinion, life of people is normally a little more complex. Anyway, who will benefit from adaptation depends very much on who has the power to decide what adaptation means (and who has access to scientific assessments to legitimize his claims!); ownership, property rights, tradition, religion, status and access to the land - to name just a few - are crucial factors, too. Adaptation sounds also different if you live in a developed country or the so-called global South - adaptation is a strong weapon in this unequal relationship. And what "local benefits" are is a pretty complicated affair as everybody knows who ever mingled into communal politics.

Thus, I think adaptation is not the simple way out of the climate dilemma, and it is not the simple way to "trick" people into mitigation, as the authors suggest (why do they always want to manipulate people instead of taking them seriously?) And adaptation is never only "local" and mitigation only "global"; this is, in my understanding, a total misconception. A closer look at reality will more often than not reveal that adaption is as much global as it is local, and that it is good for some and bad for others.

In short, adaptation is far from being the obvious way to deal with climate change. There is a common sense meaning to it, no doubt. But one should handle it carefully and make it not a simple argument in the climate wars as the authors do.

Paul Matthews said...

Werner, mitigation has a "global" effect because carbon dioxide mixes over the planet, as does temperature. So if one country makes an emissions reduction, that has a (very small) global effect.

Adaptation is "local", since, for example, building a sea wall around New Orleans only helps New Orleans. Similarly with building reservoirs to cope with droughts, painting buildings white to stay cool, etc.

Werner Krauss said...


point taken, or not? I am not sure myself. It depends if we agree that carbon dioxide has a social life, too. If Germany promotes an energy transition, this has not only a (very small) effect on global carbon emissions; it also has many local effects in Germany - wind turbines, for example. You do not get global effects without affecting social infrastructures locally. Separating one from the other leads to failed climate negotiations.

On the other hand, hurricane Katrina for sure had global effects - a super power that does not take care of its own people had lasting effects on the presidency of Bush and the image of the USA. Making New Orleans more climate proof (optimistically said) was also not only a local affair; some might say that local structures were replaced in this process by those of the tourism and other industries - restoration after Katrina served as an entry point for "disaster capitalism" (Naomi Klein). And contrary to what Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolšak state, benefits of climate adaptation were not equally distributed to the local population; obviously, some are more local than others.

This is why I do not believe that adaptation is an easier way to tackle climate change than mitigation; both are integral to the local / global nexus, and both mainly are about questions of social justice and compassion. So why not address these questions instead of artificially separating global from local and mitigation from adaptation?

stan said...

The argument that Katrina was caused by global warming does not rest on logic. It is religious in nature. I won't try to dissuade anyone from their religious beliefs, but insist that I not be taxed and regulated to support the religion of someone else.

Until alarmists can produce an argument based on science and logic, the public in the USA will not agree to mitigation. Obama is seeking to impose a plan via an imperial presidency. We will see how insulting the public will works for his party when he is no longer in power.

@ReinerGrundmann said...


What do you mean by 'artificially separating global from local and mitigation from adaptation?' Climate change is global in that the average global temperatures rise as a result of globally rising GHG concentration (among other things). This manifests itself in different ways across the globe, in different localtites, nations and regions. They adapt to these changes, no matter if they were caused by human activities or not. This is the powerful mechanism to link the two, albeit initially not recognised, or not relevant by some. It has nothing to do with tricking people into something they do not want.

This insight is powerful because it shows another way to thematise climate change, aside from the mantra of drastic cuts in carbon emissions. These have not happened and are unlikely to happen *even if the Paris climate summit should lead to an ambitious treaty*. The reason is that these measures need to be implemented on a national level but they won't.

Werner Krauss said...


I tried to make my points in comments #6 or #8, so I don't want to repeat myself. Maybe one more argument: in Paris (and many previous summits), adaptation is already an integral and well established part of the negotiations. In Bangla Desh, in the Amazone or the Sahel, local adaptation strategies are the result of global climate negotiations (how successfull they are is another question). Carbon cuts are linked with adaptation strategies; that is what the negotations between North and South are, to my knowledge. This is why it looks to me like you want to reinvent the wheel.