Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, The Netherlands. CREDIT: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Oosterscheldekering,_Netherlands.JPG">Donar Reiskoffer</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en">(CC)</a>
Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, The Netherlands. CREDIT: Donar Reiskoffer (CC)

Scrambling to Adapt to Climate Change

Apr 25, 2014

For years, climate change activists avoided "adaptive" solutions because they thought it was admitting defeat. But with the reality of extreme weather and resource shortages, even the UN is calling for this strategy. This episode explores whether this increased focus on adaptation is equitable, and whether it distracts from mitigation efforts.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're listening to Impact from the Carnegie Council.

Each episode, we explore a topic in global business ethics. This time, it's adaptation to climate change. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy.

Last time we looked at the ways we're scrambling to catch up with climate change, and how global inequality exacerbates that scramble.

Now, we'll learn about one specific scramble: to adapt to climate change. For years, the conversation avoided adaptation. But more and more mainstream governments, organizations, and activists are exploring adaptive solutions.

Remember Jackson, Wyoming infrastructure manager Luke Helm? [See previous podcast, Blueprint or Scramble?] Well, back in graduate school, he studied a pretty revolutionary adaptation to climate change.

LUKE HELM: Buoyant foundation technology.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's a really technical way of describing "floating cities," which seems like a slightly apocalyptic solution to sea level rise.

LUKE HELM: The actual technology is not that fancy. It's basically concrete wrapped around a big styrofoam core. You just get the thing to float, which people can do now.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: But this would be on a really big scale.

LUKE HELM: You know, you take Manhattan or something that's surrounded by water—why can't you put less valuable land, like parking spaces or something like that, put those out on the water and then use that land for more valuable uses, like business or housing? It's just looking at water as a suitable place to build.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Whole parking garages buoyed up by a giant styrofoam core—sounds a little bit like science fiction. But the way Helm sees it, this is a really practical solution. After all, most cities around the world are just getting bigger. And those near water are anticipating a shrinking footprint.

LUKE HELM: And they are being affected by these storm systems that are producing with greater frequency and greater rainfall, that's creating more flooding, and then the rising of the sea levels also complements that to make flooding a huge problem.

MCKENZIE FUNK: It's a good idea to think about. And it's not waving a flag of defeat to be looking at this. It's just the way we're going.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's reporter McKenzie Funk, who recently published a book about the ways that people are profiting from climate change.

MCKENZIE FUNK: You'll see the big climate funds—some of those I looked at—they're investing on both sides. They've got a lot of money in these sort of greener technologies.

And then they've got some that are sort of hedges. A few things in a dredging company, perhaps. Or on a genetic modifier of crops that might be able to thrive in a warmer, drier world.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Technologies and solutions that assume we will need to adapt to a warmer climate can require a re-allocation of resources and energy.

MCKENZIE FUNK: I used to be not okay to talk about adaptation because there was the idea that this was a failure. We're only talking about this because we failed at mitigation. And sure that's true. But at the same time, both need to happen.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Take the United Nations' recent sweeping report on climate change. It's called "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability." It points out that we're already experiencing the effects of climate change—and that not every society is ready to respond.

JANET PEACE: These extreme weather events just keep piling up. In 2012, where we have a full year of data, we had more than 800 major extreme weather events. And the cost was pretty staggering, about $130 billion dollars worth of damages.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's Janet Peace, vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, DC.

Peace's organization has been one of the loudest voices fighting for climate change mitigation strategies—for policies that would put a price on carbon.

JANET PEACE: Ninety percent of the S&P Global 100 Index companies actually say that climate change and extreme weather is a current or future business risk—not something they are talking about in the future. They say it's a current or future business risk. Having said that, they are very realistic that they have to also think about how to address the risks that we are seeing today.

We put a report out last summer, "Weathering the Storm: Building Business Resilience to Climate Change."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The report featured companies that are thinking about adapting to increasing storms and temperatures.

JANET PEACE: Companies are pretty used to managing risk. But only really a few companies that we talked to and looked at really have used climate-specific tools to really understand and assess how the climate is changing. There's a lot of data out there, but some of it is very difficult to access and understand.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The UN report acknowledges governments can't act alone—they'll need companies and entrepreneurs to come up with cutting edge solutions. And those solutions need to be a mix of adaptation and mitigation.

President Obama also argued for a mix in the "Climate Action Plan" that he released in spring of 2013.

Back to McKenzie Funk.

MCKENZIE FUNK: The administration very much focused on adaptation because, well, in part it doesn't always require going through Congress for some sort of climate deal.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: A storm surge wall can be funded locally or from federal emergency funding, which the president can mandate on his own.

MCKENZIE FUNK: And so I think it's interesting to see the Obama administration, in particular, seeing this as something to do now, and something to protect our shores.

And that's both important and it kind of shows how adaptation isn't necessarily fair. We're not sending that billion dollars first to Bangladesh or the Maldives. We're spending it here.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: To climate change policy expert Bjørn Lomborg, that inequity is a bigger problem than deciding whether to fund climate change mitigation or adaptation strategies.

BJØRN LOMBORG: Remember, when hurricanes hit Florida, lots of billions of dollars of damage, but very few people die. But if hurricanes hit, for instance, Guatemala, it wipes out about one-third of their GDP and it kills tens of thousands of people.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: The UN report found that poor countries need as much as $100 billion in aid each year to offset climate change effects. Right now, they receive just a few billion per year.

Lomborg explained in our last episode that he sees global economic inequality as a more pressing short-term issue than the impacts of climate change. That doesn't mean we shouldn't spend on protections against extreme weather.

BJØRN LOMBORG: The main reason why we should help people is because hurricanes are already terrible now and have been all the way through history. So we've got to remember this is not as much about global warming as it really is a question of just simply helping vulnerable people.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So, adaptation before mitigation? Janet Peace says it's a false choice.

JANET PEACE: I don't think it's a zero-sum game. It's not "or," it's "and," because we actually need to do both. We need to be reducing emissions at the same time we are managing the risks that really we can't afford today. We have to think about it this way: reducing our emissions gives our adaptation efforts a much greater chance of success.

Maybe a short analogy would help: We buy fire insurance. While we buy it, we also take steps to ensure that we don't have a fire. So we try to prevent it as well as mitigate it with the insurance.

So we focus both on mitigation and resilience to climate change and extreme weather. That's just a good risk management strategy. That's true whether you are a company or whether you are a government.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Reporter McKenzie Funk warns an increased focus on adaptation can also exacerbate global inequality.

MCKENZIE FUNK: Insofar as it is locally done—if it's paid for by local governments, or neighborhoods, or even individuals—then those who can afford the better defenses can be better defended. It's as simple as that.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Take the sea wall that New York City considered installing after Hurricane Sandy. It would have been in the shape of a "V" protecting the financial district on Wall Street.

MCKENZIE FUNK: If you're at the bottom of Manhattan—if you're where the Goldman Sachs building happens to sit—then you'll be very happy to have the storm surge barrier because any water being pushed up New York harbor is going to get stopped.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: If you're in Brooklyn or Staten Island, not so much.

MCKENZIE FUNK: It will actually make it worse for you because that water has to go someplace.

The water hits the barrier—its been pushed up against it and we can picture this all very easily—it bounces. It actually floods the neighborhoods on the two sides of it all the more. That was estimated to be at least a couple of feet, by the engineers that I talked to, that would go into parts of Brooklyn and parts of Staten Island that are already a little bit threatened by these storm surges and that did get damaged in Sandy.

So, this would make it worse for them. It would make it better for Manhattan, for the wealthier part.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That pesky inequality issue keeps rearing its ugly head. Richer individuals, richer neighborhoods, richer countries, will adapt more easily.

MCKENZIE FUNK: They'll at least be able to better purchase the things—be they seawalls or desalination plants or other technologies that will help them through this. And this is just not an option for a lot of the world.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thanks for listening to Impact from Carnegie Council. And a special thanks to our production team, Mel Sebastiani, Terence Hurley, Deborah Carroll, and Amber Kiwan. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy.

You can find out more about this podcast at carnegiecouncil.org.

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