The looming climate adaptation gap

Nearly a year after the Copenhagen conference went nowhere, the U.S. Congress has scratched any talk of carbon pricing from its oil and gas drilling legislation, and what little tentative international cooperation existed on tackling carbon emissions has been reduced to diplomatic finger-pointing. So it’s a good time to try a increasingly realistic-looking thought experiment: ...

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Nearly a year after the Copenhagen conference went nowhere, the U.S. Congress has scratched any talk of carbon pricing from its oil and gas drilling legislation, and what little tentative international cooperation existed on tackling carbon emissions has been reduced to diplomatic finger-pointing. So it's a good time to try a increasingly realistic-looking thought experiment: What if we accept that environmental changes will occur, and look instead at how humanity would face a change in the planet's temperature?

That in essence is the question raised by the UCLA urban and environmental economist Matthew Kahn in his new book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, released yesterday. Kahn remains unconvinced that world governments will take the steps needed to curtail carbon emissions and reverse climate change. Instead, he focuses on how we will adapt to our warmer planet through a variety of market mechanisms. Responding to gradually warming conditions, entrepreneurs will come up with such developments as cheaper and more efficient air-conditioning systems, and governments will respond with infrastructural improvements to prevent property values from quite literally going under. Cities will be the focal point of our adaptation to a changed climate, as more people will migrate to the places with the greatest concentration of wealth and resources to make such necessary infrastructural improvements as flood walls.

Nearly a year after the Copenhagen conference went nowhere, the U.S. Congress has scratched any talk of carbon pricing from its oil and gas drilling legislation, and what little tentative international cooperation existed on tackling carbon emissions has been reduced to diplomatic finger-pointing. So it’s a good time to try a increasingly realistic-looking thought experiment: What if we accept that environmental changes will occur, and look instead at how humanity would face a change in the planet’s temperature?

That in essence is the question raised by the UCLA urban and environmental economist Matthew Kahn in his new book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, released yesterday. Kahn remains unconvinced that world governments will take the steps needed to curtail carbon emissions and reverse climate change. Instead, he focuses on how we will adapt to our warmer planet through a variety of market mechanisms. Responding to gradually warming conditions, entrepreneurs will come up with such developments as cheaper and more efficient air-conditioning systems, and governments will respond with infrastructural improvements to prevent property values from quite literally going under. Cities will be the focal point of our adaptation to a changed climate, as more people will migrate to the places with the greatest concentration of wealth and resources to make such necessary infrastructural improvements as flood walls.

In his discussion of Climatopolis last week on the New York Times Economix blog, Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser observed that Kahn’s argument could carry some potentially grave implications. According to Glaeser, one of the biggest problems of relying on market mechanisms to adapt to climate change is the unequal ability of rich and poor countries to respond to changing environmental conditions. While “rich countries will muddle through if the planet gets hotter,” Glaeser is “far more fearful” about the rest:

In a sense, the ability of all of humankind to weather climate change depends on whether Asia, Africa and South America get richer before they get hotter. A lot of lives depend on their winning that race.

I emailed Kahn for his own take on how the fast-growing emerging economies — the developing countries furthest along the road to riches — would adapt to a gradual change in the climate. He responded by observing that as economic development has lifted millions out of poverty, so will it enhance these countries’ abilities to adapt to environmental changes. Though China and India are not pursuing an explicit carbon emissions strategy, their rapid pace of development will bring an enhanced ability to adapt to climate change to even the poorest members of their population:

As the urban poor become richer, they eat a better diet, live in better housing, have access to cleaner water and better sanitation. These private choices help to protect the population from disease, heat waves and natural disasters. The Mayor of a richer city will have the tax revenue to enforce zoning codes and to invest in infrastructure to reduce the impact of natural disasters. A richer government will have the capacity to generate electricity to keep people cool on extremely hot days.  This is the core of my thinking for why economic development has a causal impact on helping ‘emerging markets’ to adapt to climate change.

But the assumption that environmental adaptation capabilities for less developed countries come as a by-product of economic development raised a second question for me: How can we be sure that their form of adaptation will be desirable in the long run? If these countries move to increase electricity capacity to help their citizens adapt to higher temperatures, what happens if that added electricity generation relies on such carbon-intensive sources as coal or oil?

Kahn addresses the question in Climatopolis:

Access to clean technology is crucial for breaking this link between economic development and greenhouse gas production. … This raises an interesting redistribution issue concerning who will pay for this “green push” in the developing world. The win-win would be if the developed countries were willing to pay this bill. Taxpayers in such nations as England might convince themselves that this transfer offers a ‘win-win’ of giving resources to [developing] countries that their people want and mitigating the carbon challenge.

The inevitable problem for any prediction of how the world will respond to climate change is that it relies upon several crucial assumptions. As Glaeser noted in his post, we must assume that any environmental changes are gradual enough for private and government responses to be effective. If people from areas at risk from rising temperatures or sea levels respond by moving en masse to richer cities and countries that have the resources to adapt, migration laws would have to be significantly liberalized, hardly a sure thing given the toxic state of the immigration debate from America to Europe to Australia. Finally, if promoting cleaner energy sources in developing countries requires significant external funding, can we assume that the West is willing to foot the bill? Given the inability of individual governments to move forward on tackling their own carbon emissions, much less those of others, such magnanimity is far from likely.

In spite of the problems that may rise from Kahn’s argument, it would be wrong to downplay the role of market mechanisms in adapting to new environments. If indeed some form of climate change is inevitable, we will need to learn to adapt to the new conditions through responding to our own self-interest. The real challenge, then, will be preventing the emergence of a global wealth gap in climate adaptation.

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