The Truth about Adaptation

David Roberts, formerly of, did not lose his chops when he moved to Vox.

A recent essay, entitled Hurricane Katrina showed what “adapting to climate change” looks like is proof of this, and given that we’re still on track for a full-fledged climate catastrophe, it’s required reading.  And be clear about the context here — this is not a brief against adaptation, which will be essential — but an argument against those who pretend to seriousness by presenting adaptation as an alternative to a full-bore mitigation mobilization.

Here are some of Robert’s key points:

* Adaptation will be extremely expensivemuch more expensive than reducing carbon emissions up front — and just as politically difficult.

* Mitigation is altruistic and universalist; adaptation is tribal and local.  In other words, Adaptation “is not global but local, not universal in impact but highly targeted. A billion dollars of mitigation helps everyone a little bit; a billion dollars of adaptation helps a few people a lot. Specifically, adaptation helps people who have the luck to live in areas that can afford it.”

* Mitigation slows the spread of inequality; adaptation speeds it up.  This one I will quote at length:

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The People's Climate Test

Late in June, a coalition of global civil society organizations launched The People’s Test on Climate 2015, a set of high-level considerations that they suggest we keep in mind when we judge the outcome of the Paris COP. As we inevitably will. It aims to highlight the fundamentals: to stress the importance of climate action for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and to insist that the real goal is and has to be progress towards a more just and sustainable society.

The People’s Climate Test is useful because it skirts the choice between “success” and “failure” — Paris is unlikely to be either — and instead asserts the importance of three high level goals:

* Sustainable energy transformation – redirecting finance from dirty energy to clean, affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy, supporting people’s solutions including decentralized community renewable energy systems, banning new dirty energy projects, ensuring that access to clean, affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy is a public good, reducing energy consumption particularly by wealthy elites, and ensuring that reducing poverty and achieving justice is prioritized throughout the transformation;

* The right to food and water – ensuring people’s access to water and to land for climate resilient food production, stopping land grabs and the ongoing conversion of land from food to commodities like biofuels that are falsely presented as solutions to the climate crisis, and supporting sustainable agro-ecology and climate resilient food production systems

* Justice for impacted people – securing and building the resilience of impacted people including reparations for the world’s impoverished and marginalized people who have no role in causing climate change, yet whose lives and livelihoods are endangered by its effects, supporting a just transition for workers into the new environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy, and supporting people- and community-driven adaptation and rehabilitation solutions.

It states these, and then lays out the test itself.  “To meet that test, the Paris Summit must:

* Catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions – in line with what science and equity require, deliver urgent short-term actions, building towards a long-term goal that is agreed in Paris, that shift us away from dirty energy, marking the beginning of the end of fossil fuels globally, and that keep the global temperature goal in reach;

* Provide adequate support for transformation – ensure that the resources needed, such as public finance and technology transfer, are provided to support the transformation, especially in vulnerable and poor countries;

* Deliver justice for impacted people – enhance the support to adaptation in a new climate regime, ensure that there will be a separate mechanism to provide reparations for any loss and damage that goes beyond our ability to adapt, and make a firm commitment to secure workers’ livelihoods and jobs through a Just Transition;

* Focus on transformational action – ensure that renewable and efficient solutions are emphasized rather than false solutions that fail to produce the results and protection we need, such as carbon markets in land and soil, dangerous geoengineering interventions, and more.”

This is a good list!   Keep it in mind.  And watch this space.

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

There are many ways to compare humanity’s demands to the Earth’s ability to meet those demands. Scan the literature, and you’ll find plenty of approaches, and plenty of metaphors for what we used to call “The Limits to Growth.” Carbon budgets, temperature targets, and planetary boundaries all come to mind, as does the equity debate in the climate talks and, of course, the ecological footprint.

This (August 13) being 2015’s Earth Overshoot Day — the day on which, according the ecological actuaries at the Global Footprint Network, we’ve blown though 2015’s entire annual biocapacity budget — the footprint approach takes the spotlight. It’s earned the attention, for it’s a clever compromise between rigor and comprehensibility, and this is a rare thing indeed.

The power of the footprint approach is its flexibility, especially the way it scales. You can look at the planetary footprint of humanity as a whole — all our constructions, from wheat fields to weapons labs, taken together. Or you can talk about national footprints, wherein a country’s weight is compared to the biocapacity that lies within its borders, or, alternatively, to the footprints of other nations. Or you can talk about the footprint of a town, or a city, or a zipcode. You can talk of — and investigate — your own personal footprint. (Spoiler: Fly less!)

You can investigate footprints over time, in which case you’re going to be talking about ecological debts. You can even — and, alas, we do this far too seldom — talk about class footprints, by which, say, the weight of a nation’s elite is compared to the weight of its poor. You can aggregate people into groups, or you talk in per-capita terms. And the cool thing is that, in all these ways, the metaphor holds. You can be understood.

There are, of course, uses and abuses. This being Earth Overshoot Day, I can hardly fail to mention that the notion of “overshoot” has too often been used to carry water for reductionist forms of Malthusianism in which “overpopulation” dominates the stage, and hard thought about overconsumption and unjust distribution somehow never get equal time. On the other hand, we may have finally reached the point where we can leave this dismal history behind. As we do here: the “overshoot” of Earth Overshoot Day is not ideology, but rather methodology.

There’s much more to do, of course. In particular, there’s more to do on the distributional side of the footprint challenge. Oxfam tells us that, sometime in 2016, the “global one percent” — to richest hundreth of the human population — will own half of everything on the planet. The exact date when this great event takes place is not knowable — the data isn’t good enough — but it’ll happen soon. And the day it does will be at least as important as Earth Overshoot Day 2016.

Meanwhile, this is still 2015. The year of Pope Francis’ encyclical, and the year when Overshoot Day landed on August 13th. (Back in 2006, when Andrew Simms evidentally dreamt up the idea, it fell in October.) It’s also the year of the Paris climate accord, and next up on that agenda is fighting like hell to make sure Paris comes to something real. If we succeed, we won’t live to see the day when the annual overshoot moves forward into July. And then into June . . .

This is not someplace we want to go.