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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Buying Time and Building Resilience through Climate Adaptation Innovation Policy (Part 4)

By Matthew Stepp, Clean Energy Policy Analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and Jesse Jenkins, Director of Climate and Energy Policy at the Breakthrough Institute

It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explained why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enabling the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible. Part 4 discusses why adaptation through innovation is central to preparing for the impacts of a warmer world and buying us time to drastically cut emissions.

The door is closed to mitigating away all of the potentially dangerous impacts of climate change.  We’ve simply waited too long to take sweeping action and provide a cheap and viable clean energy substitute to fossil fuels. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed that even so, the goal is still the same – we must drastically cut emissions as quickly as possible (and Part 2 and Part 3 discussed how).

Yet the warmer world we have locked ourselves into does inform other policy choices. In particular, building our resilience to extreme weather and increasing our adaptive capacity is now equally as important as mitigation and should be treated as such. Advocating for adaptation and mitigation is nothing new – in fact it’s common place. The argument here is that adaptation must now be a cornerstone of all climate policy choices – domestic or otherwise.

When it comes to climate adaptation policymaking, a lot of work needs to be done, as it’s still a topic that has been largely ignored by U.S. decision makers. In fact, the most immediate hurdle is for decision makers to stop paying lip-service to the need for an adaptation policy and begin aggressively implementing real resilience efforts.

Understandably, adaptation has long played the role of the ugly headed step-child of climate policy, as decision makers focused almost entirely on ways to significantly cut emissions. Of course, ten or twenty years ago, mitigation clearly seemed the more immediate and pressing priority. Yet times have changed as twenty years of mitigation efforts have yielded little progress and the adaptation challenge has now become a pressing priority. Recognition has begun to sink in, but most adaptation policy discussions in recent years are still found towards the margins, largely in international climate negotiations or in select U.S. states and local communities. Case in point is the internationally proposed Green Climate Fund that intends to offer financing options for both mitigation and adaptation projects across the world. Or the efforts of major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle to plan resilient strategies for a changing climate.

Yet climate adaptation is scarcely heard within the halls of Congress or among most domestic policy advocates. This must change and it should be a top priority for all climate advocates. Adaptation must be vigorously discussed alongside climate mitigation efforts, instead of as an afterthought, or as a Plan B, to be initiated sometime in the future. Building climate resilience must begin now, and in earnest.

But for any vigorous policy discussion to have an impact, we need to throw away some old mischaracterizations. Namely, we should stop narrowly defining adaptation policy as only addressing anthropogenic (aka man made) climate change impacts and instead define it as addressing resilience to extreme climate and weather, regardless of the cause. This may sound odd, but it’s a key nuance. As last year’s Hartwell Group report, Climate Pragmatism (which ITIF and BTI are signatories), points out:

“[N]ations must shift their focus away from adaptation to anthropogenic climate change and towards resilience to extreme weather events of all types, without regard to cause. After all, it is immaterial if a hurricane is marginally more intense due to climate change than it would otherwise have been; the route to resilience is the same regardless. Societies remain vulnerable to many types of hazards, and resilient societies are those best prepared to respond effectively to a diversity of threats.”

The idea here is that we shouldn’t be spending time trying to discern between human-caused weather extremes and natural-caused weather extremes, at least from an adaptive capacity point-of-view. Doing so adds yet another layer of policy tension and debate as policymakers try to figure out what constitutes human-made climate change impacts from “normal” impacts. In reality, with or without the threat of climate change, it’s important for communities to build resilience to extreme weather and climate impacts. Instead of creating a new subset of needs for communities, we should be vigorously stepping up our existing development, infrastructure, agricultural productivity, and economic resilience efforts. Climate change adds a greater sense of urgency and aggressiveness, not the need for new and artificially segregated efforts.

Furthermore, policymakers must recognize the role that innovation plays in building climate resilience. We need new technical, organizational, and societal solutions to better manage risk and expand options for boosting resilience, both in developing and developed communities.

These innovations will arise in all facets of science and engineering. Medical innovations in prevention, drugs, and drug delivery are needed to stop the spread of infectious diseases as regions become warmer and disease vectors (mosquitoes, etc.) spread across wider regions. Agricultural innovations, particularly around genetically engineered crops, are needed to continue to increase crop productivity to avoid falling yields, even in high temperature environments and instances of flooding. Breakthroughs in water recycling and purification are necessary to ensure communities in drought-prone regions and those impacted by rising sea-level or disappearing mountain glaciers have access to drinking water, while new engineering innovations are needed to safeguard those communities, buildings, and crops against rising water and other extreme weather.

Innovations in information and communication technologies are also vitally needed. New remote sensing instruments are needed to provide better data for weather forecasters and numerical models. High-speed supercomputing could allow for better risk management and scenario analysis to better prepare local and regional disaster management decisions. New software that gathers, manages, and analyzes key data to quickly provide disaster managers with real-time updates are vitally important. Information technology systems to enable better flood warning are needed.  And ensuring new and functional weather and climate satellites provides key datasets for policymakers.

Therefore, everything from R&D policy and farm bills to infrastructure funding and space policy is key to an aggressive adaptation strategy. In other words, adaptation policy is cross-cutting and deeply infused with innovation policy questions. And just like policies aimed at limiting potentially dangerous climate change, adaptation policies will be implemented in the face of uncertainty, both in climate impacts and variance in extreme weather.

Even under uncertainty, one thing can be certain – in a warmer world, there is no such thing as “normal” climate or weather anymore. In the face of uncertainty, resilience is key. Given our new harsh climate realities, aggressive mitigation and climate resilience is an imperative. U.S. climate policy discussions that don’t include building resilience to extreme weather are set for failure.


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