Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Climate change: "Adaptation"

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fifth Assessment Report, showing the world facing war, famine and death. But rather than committing to reducing emissions, politicians have said "we'll adapt". In The Guardian, George Monbiot rips apart what that means:

When our environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assures us that climate change "is something we can adapt to over time" or Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian today, says that we should move towards "thinking intelligently about how the world should adapt to what is already happening", what do they envisage? Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? Have they any clue about what this would cost? Of what the impacts would be on the people breezily being told to live with it?

My guess is that they don't envisage anything: they have no idea what they mean when they say adaptation. If they've thought about it at all, they probably picture a steady rise in temperatures, followed by a steady rise in impacts, to which we steadily adjust. But that, as we should know from our own recent experience, is not how it happens. Climate breakdown proceeds in fits and starts, sudden changes of state against which, as we discovered on a small scale in January, preparations cannot easily be made.

While our past inaction means some level of adaptation is required, we need to be clear: it will be hugely disruptive, cost a fortune, and be driven by disasters. To use a local example: what do you think a metre of sea-level rise is going to do to Wellington? And what do you think that combined with a winter storm will do to the coast highway segment of SH1, the Hutt Road segment of SH2, the Hutt-Wellington railway line, Petone and Eastbourne? The latter already loses houses in severe storms; in the future it'll probably lose its road. Preventing this will cost a fortune - and given our politicians and their denial, it won't be done in advance. We'll have to wait until houses are flooded and transport links cut before they do anything.

This is the future our politicians have given us: one where we face large costs, because they were too lazy and selfish to act now. And when it happens, we should drag them from their retirement homes and hold them criminally responsible for their negligence.