Magazine article The Spectator

Climate Change: Armageddon Averted

Magazine article The Spectator

Climate Change: Armageddon Averted

Article excerpt

Adapting to climate change is far more effective than trying to stop it

Credit: Matt Ridley


Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it. Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation and focus instead on 'mitigation' -- the misleading term for preventing carbon dioxide emissions.

That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories about scientists being even more certain of environmental Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that accompanied the report, the word 'adaptation' occurred ten times, the word 'mitigation' not at all.

The distinction is crucial. So far, the debate has followed a certain bovine logic: that global warming is happening, so we need to slow it down by hugely expensive decarbonisation strategies -- green taxes, wind farms. And what good will this do? Is it possible to stop global warming in its tracks? Or would all these green policies be the equivalent of trying to blow away a hurricane? This question -- just how much can be achieved by mitigation -- is one not often addressed.

There is an alternative: accepting that the planet is warming, and seeing if we can adjust accordingly. Adaptation means investing in flood defences, so that airports such as Schiphol can continue to operate below existing (and future) sea level, and air conditioning, so that cities such as Houston and Singapore can continue to grow despite existing (and future) high temperatures. It means plant breeding, so that maize can be grown in a greater range of existing (and future) climates, better infrastructure, so that Mexico or India can survive existing (and future) cyclones, more world trade, so that Ethiopia can get grain from Australia during existing (and future) droughts.

Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, in repeatedly emphasising the need to adapt to climate change in this way, has been something of a lone voice in the government. But he can now count on the support of the mighty IPCC, a United Nations body that employs hundreds of scientists to put together the scientific equivalent of a bible on the topic every six years or so. Whereas the last report had two pages on adaptation, this one has four chapters.

Professor Chris Field is the chairman of Working Group 2 of the IPCC, the part devoted to the effects of climate change rather than the cause. 'The really big breakthrough in this report,' he says, 'is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change.' His co-chair Vicente Barros adds: 'Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future ... adaptation can play a key role in decreasing these risks'. After so many years, the penny is beginning to drop.

In his book An Appeal to Reason , Lawson devoted a chapter to the importance of adaptation, in which he pointed out that the last IPCC report in 2007 specifically assumed that humans would not adapt. 'Possible impacts,' the report said, 'do not take into account any changes or developments in adaptive capacity.' That is to say, if the world gets warmer, sea levels rise and rainfall patterns change, farmers, developers and consumers will do absolutely nothing to change their habits over the course of an entire century. It is a ludicrous assumption.

But this assumption was central, Lawson pointed out, to the estimated future cost of climate change the IPCC reported. …

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