Terms of Engagement

Adapt or Die

Adapt or Die

See more photos of vulnerable coastal areas here. 

I’m one of the lucky ones. I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and I haven’t lost a minute of power to Sandy. Many of my friends have, of course; as I write this, my wife’s nephew, and our god-daughter, are asleep in our apartment. The storm has upended vastly more lives than anyone expected — the death toll in New York City is up to 38, while most of Hoboken, just across the Hudson, remains underwater. Still, New York will feel like New York again quite soon, for a great Western capital is an inherently resilient place. "Can you imagine," asks Cristina Rumbaitis Del Rio, a climate change expert at the Rockefeller Foundation, "something like this happening in Calcutta or Dhaka, where people live in substandard housing and there isn’t the communications infrastructure to lead to the preparedness we saw in New York City?"

It doesn’t take too much imagination. In the last few years, vast floods have ravaged Manila and Bangkok; in 2005, storm waters killed close to 1,000 people in Mumbai. Coastal cities, of course, have always been subject to floods and storm surges, but climate change has increased that vulnerability owing to rising sea levels and the increasing violence of storms. And the number of people exposed to those risks has grown rapidly as people have flocked to cities. Over 400 million people now live in urban areas situated 10 meters or less above sea level, most of them in Asia. A sea-level rise of 38 centimeters has been estimated to increase by a factor of five the number of people affected by such flooding. The U.S. Geological Survey has projected that oceans will rise by between 60 centimeters and 1.9 meters by 2100. Is that a graphic enough picture?

The long-term answer to the problem, of course, is to bend the curve of climate change downward by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But even should this somehow comes to pass, the cumulative effects of global warming ensure that the kind of damage we have begun to see — in farms and forests as well as in cities — will grow in the coming decades. This is why climate scientists and policy advocates have increasingly focused on adaptation as the solution to the inevitable effects of global warming.

Adaptation involves both big infrastructure projects, like the kind of storm gates now being considered for New York City, and myriad changes in early-warning and evacuation systems, building design, urban planning, wetlands development, and the like. It’s not cheap, though it’s much cheaper than doing nothing. In a 2010 report, the World Bank estimated that the cost of adapting to a world 2 degrees centigrade warmer than the historic baseline would be $70-$100 billion a year between now and 2050.

The likelihood that donor countries will mobilize such a vast sum, which is roughly equal to the total amount now spent on development aid, is only slightly greater than the likelihood of drastic action to reduce global emissions. But the auguries are a little bit better. At the otherwise unsuccessful 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, donors pledged to spend $10 billion a year over the ensuing three years on a combination of adaptation, especially in vulnerable countries, and "mitigation" — reducing emissions — while building towards a goal of spending $100 billion a year by 2020. Most of those pledges have in fact been committed, including by the United States, whose share of the three-year total comes to $5.1 billion. So far, however, very little of that money has been disbursed, apparently because the international financial institutions which hold it in trust have been slow to move.

Adaptation, by its nature, is a localized activity, and there are innumerable pilot projects and studies and actual programs going on in affected areas. Bangladesh, which according to the World Bank study is on the receiving end of 40 percent of the world’s storm surges,  has been adapting to calamity since the 1960s by building coastal embankments and shelters, planting trees, and establishing early-warning systems. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network funds programs in 10 cities, mostly medium-sized places like Surat, in western India, or Da Nang, in Vietnam. The program works with municipal leaders and local organizations to devise small-scale, high-impact measures such as modeling flood zones or building public-health campaigns to reduce the incidence of malaria and other insect-borne diseases. But it’s all very modest. In Bangladesh, for example, natural disasters already absorb 0.5 to 1 percent of gross domestic product; absent more ambitious adaptation measures, that may well be the cost of each of the more severe cyclones expected in the future.  

Who’s going to pay for that? China and India, which together have almost a third of the affected coastal population, are increasingly self-reliant, and should be expected to make serious contributions towards the cost of adaptation — though their current position has been that the West has caused global warming, so the West should pay for the consequences. What about us? Until Hurricane Katrina, citizens in the West could look on epic flooding as just another awful problem besetting the Third World. But that’s a pre-global warming mentality. As John Mutter, a climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, puts it, "one way to think about a world getting warmer is that the tropics are just bigger." Natural disasters once largely confined to 30 degrees from the equator are now creeping towards the forties, where the West’s great centers of commerce and creation lie. New York in 2030 may feel like Manila in 1970. Climate-change adaptation will become part of our lives because it will have to. Whether that will make the West more or less likely to finance this adaptation and mitigation in more vulnerable parts of the world is another question.

Of course, if you keep treating the symptoms rather than the disease, the treatment will only get more expensive, and more desperate. As Dean Bialek, director for climate change at the non-profit advisory group Independent Diplomat, puts it, "All the adaptation in the world will fall way short if we don’t peak global emissions before 2020, and U.S. leadership is the sine qua non to a more concerted global effort, particularly in China." That is, China, as well as the other emerging nations whose rapidly expanding economies account for a growing fraction of emissions, must agree to sharply reduce the rate of emissions even while continuing to grow — and they will not do so unless the United States agrees to adopt equivalent measures.

In this respect, climate change is a lot like nuclear nonproliferation. President Barack Obama understood very clearly that other states would not agree to restrain nuclear proliferation unless and until Washington accepted its own end of the bargain — reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons. Within the limits of what is politically impossible, Obama has done just that. He has made virtually no progress on climate change because it hasn’t been politically possible to do so; but this, in turn, ensures that the global problem will only get worse. Still, recent polls have found that Americans do want the Washington to take a leadership position on climate change, though are leery of the kind of tax policies which might be required to address the problem. Sandy may move the needle of public opinion a little further. Should he win next Tuesday, Mitt Romney, who cannot admit to even believing that humans cause climate change, is unlikely to do anything about the problem. If Obama is re-elected, he will have no choice but to lavish a great deal of political capital on this intractable subject. But isn’t that what a second term is for?