Why adaptation is not sufficient

March 25th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Just after I post suggesting that it would be more constructive to get out of the zero-sum construction of adaptation and mitigation, the LA Times has a story featuring Roger Pielke, Jr. and others saying we should give up on mitigation and focus on adaptation: “His research has led him to believe that it is cheaper and more effective to adapt to global warming than to fight it.”

[Correction: Roger informs me that this quotation mischaracterizes his position as posing a dichotomy between adaptation and mitigation. I apologize for taking the reporter's words at face value without checking their veracity first. The comment that follows, then, does not refer specifically to Roger's views, but I leave it because the false perception that we must choose between adaptation and mitigation is common and I wish to make clear that it's wrong.]

That’s just not going to do it, in part because it ignores the value of ecosystem services. I would like anti-mitigationists to address how adaptation will address ecosystems, particularly the effect of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems.

I am also very concerned about the economic effects of disrupting terrestrial ecosystems on agriculture. I have a hard time believing anti-mitigation arguments based on cost-benefit analyses that set a zero value on threats to ecosystem services simply because they don’t know how to quantify those.

Beyond the effects on ecosystems, water scarcity is a significant threat and the policy literature is littered with the remains of papers suggesting that technological fixes would solve water scarcity problems. One of my favorites is Alvin Weinberg in the 1960s suggesting that nuclear-powered desalination would resolve the Israeli/Arab conflict in short order. If droughts become more severe in many parts of the world, history suggests that adaptation is likely to be much more difficult and expensive than we think.

Adaptation is absolutely necessary because no matter what we do we can’t stop some amount of climate change over the coming century, but without mitigation we’re looking at very big downside risks, not so much in the maximum-likelihood case, but in exactly the sort of low-probability/high-consequence stuff to which, according to Pielke’s flood policy research, our political system is very bad at adapting even in the absence of anthropogenic climate change.

So if our political system stinks at managing floods, coastal storm risks, and fresh-water resources in the absence of anthropogenic climate change, why would it manage better if climate change does turn out to significantly increase the mean severity and/or variance of the distribution?

Adaptation is important but I would like to propose that farm subsidies would be a much more deserving budget category to raid in order to pay for it than GHG mitigation. This is particularly apt because agriculture will need to do much more adapting than most economic sectors.

Or we could try for a coupled mitigation-adaptation funding scheme: Impose a carbon tax at the well head, the mine shaft, or the port of entry and use the proceeds to pay for adaptation. Would this not be an elegant Pigovian solution which would let the market decide how to balance mitigation and adaptation?

Are both of these suggestions naive and unlikely to get through a committee on the Hill? Of course, but neither is it likely that we’ll see anyone in Congress pushing to reallocate billions of dollars from Lieberman-Warner toward helping Bangladesh to deal with rising sea levels or sub-Saharan Africa to adapt its agriculture to drought.

But to cast climate policy as a zero-sum division of resources, especially when the total pie is so inadequately small, is tediously unimaginative. [Deleted reference to this position as representing Pielke's views]

11 Responses to “Why adaptation is not sufficient”

  1. SteffenH Says:

    So if our political system stinks at managing floods, coastal storm risks, and fresh-water resources in the absence of anthropogenic climate change, why would it manage better if climate change does turn out to significantly increase the mean severity and/or variance of the distribution?

    It’s a bad argument for mitigation, because we aren’t discussing about the political problems of adaptation but a cost-benefit-comparison between some combinations of adaptation and mitigation. It is all about finding political means to adaptate. If there wouldn’t be any adaptation possibilities because of lacking institutions there would be no alternative to mitigation. But unless we bear no costs the political obstacles to adaptation are no less severe than those to mitigation.

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  3. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    SteffenH, thanks for your comment. When Pielke gives an interview to a major newspaper in which he advocates cutting back on mitigation policy in favor of adaptation policy, he defines the problem domain to be both cost-benefit analysis of implementation and also the political game of getting legislation through Congress. If he didn’t intend for his statements to have political consequences, he’d stick to scholarly journals, but he’s to be praised for taking his views into the poltical arena, even if I disagree with those views.

    First, it’s counterproductive to undermine the mitigation legislation currently in process in Congress by saying that another, less politically feasible approach, is superior. Voltaire’s quip about the best being the enemy of the good and whatnot.

    Second, setting the two approaches in opposition to each other is wrong because just from a cost-benefit approach we need both and in fact we need a lot more of each than is currently on the books. Further, the argument for adaptation instead of mitigation only looks so favorable because it neglects some important costs and benefits, because it does not take adequate account of the low-probability/high-consequence end of the distribution of possible AGW consequences (See Martin Weitzmann’s review of the Stern Review, to which I link in my original post) and because it assumes an idealized implementation of adaptation policies, not an extension of existing adaptation policies (NFIP and Colorado River Compact, and so forth)

    Third, I’m expanding the problem domain: even if you think it’s better to dump mitigation and buy adaptation, then it’s better still to dump farm subsidies and buy both mitigation and adaptation, so Pielke’s arguing from a false premise of necessary tradeoffs between only those two policies.

    Thanks again for your comments and criticism.

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  5. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Can you point to anywhere where I have advocated “Roger Pielke, Jr. and others saying we should give up on mitigation and focus on adaptation”? You can’t because I haven’t, and I don’t think anyone else has either.

    I have argued that mitigation policies should be properly justified. The characterization of my views that you point to is simply not accurate.

    Please do not mischaracterize my views.

    You might read my post today on why I believe that mitigation and adaptation are perfectly compatible:


    Thanks much,


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  7. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    Fair enough, Roger. I’ve edited the post to add a correction.

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  9. SteffenH Says:

    I second Mr. Pielke in this case that from an cost-benefit approach mitigation and adaptation are perfect ly compertible. But hindsight the huge bargaining costs of efficient mitigation I would point to a kind of Coasean approach to get the cheapest solution. In this case not the polluter but the injured party pays. This could be pure adaptation.

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  11. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    Steffen, Thanks for your idea.

    I’m not sure why you think Pielke and I disagree about whether adaptation and mitigation are compatible from a CBA perspective. We agree and this dispute arose when I thought that he was saying they were not compatible.

    Mitigation does not require huge bargaining costs. You just impose a Pigovian carbon tax at the coal mine, oil well, etc., and apply the proceeds toward adaptation. This allows the markets to allocate resources efficiently between mitigation and adaptation.

    My problem with your application of Coase to resolving disputes between the desperately poor in Africa vs. McMansion owners in the US is that there’s a slippery slope from the Coase’s firebug train to outright extortion.

    A witty lawyer, Paul Gowder, once explained Coase thus (http://lessig.org/blog/2004/12/is_there_another_nobel_prize_b.html):

    The Coase Theorem in a Nutshell:
    I have a mortar.
    You have a house.
    It is costless for us to negotiate.
    It is UTTERLY MEANINGLESS whether I have the legal duty to not use the mortar to blow up your house, or the legal right to do so at my will.
    Assume I get $50 of pleasure from using the mortar to blow up your house.
    Assume you get $2000 of displeasure from my using the mortar to blow up your house.
    It is perfectly efficient for the legal system to assign me the house-up-blowing right, and for you to pay me anything between $51 and $1999 not to blow up your house.
    My name? Corleone. Vito Corleone. Pleased to meet you. I have great respect for Mr. Coase.

    This is how I see Coasean solutions that would tell us in the U.S. to continue enjoying 4000 square foot houses, plasma TVs, and long commutes, all powered by fossil fuels, unless the poor people of the world pay us to stop (or pay to adapt to the consequences of our effluents).

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  13. SteffenH Says:

    I’m not sure if you got Coase contribution to the environmental policy debate as he stated it in his “Problem of Social Cost” right (see http://www.iaes.org/journal2/aej/june_03/butler.pdf). First you suppose, that the cost of climate change are concentrated in poor countries. I’m not sure if we consider longtime consequences of even lower development. So it isn’t clear that only developing contries pay rich countries and not the other way round. Moreover every side would try to minimise its cost either by own measures or by buying measures of others. I think you accentuate the strategic part of coasean bargainig too much. If transaction costs (ie. bargaining costs are to high adaptation could be cost minimising, again, you can’t get over these costs). Second, coasean thinking means, that you give the legal duty to prevent the problem to the party with the lowest cost of preventive measures. Keep in mind, that it isn’t carbon dioxid what makes the problems for humans but the consequences of higher temperatures. Economists often stress the point, that you should concentrate at direct solution to the problem to prevent inefficient side effects of indirect measures. For instance if you want to reduce a pollutant which causes health problems tax the polutant not tax the production of the polluting firm. Try to translate this recommendation to climate change and it isn’t self-evident to tax carbon dioxid. More carbon dioxid is only one cause of global warming and the consequences of higher temperatures. Given the uncertainties about the causality of climate related problems its clear we need to protect us against it but to mitigate is a very indirect and uncertain way to do it (see Lomborg “Cool it”). Thatswhy I think your blog-citation isn’t very useful in this discussion.

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  15. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    “coasean thinking means, that you give the legal duty to prevent the problem to the party with the lowest cost of preventive measures.”

    Actually, that’s not Coase at all. It’s Calabrese’s justification for expanding tort liability to all dangerous products, not only those cases where there is clear negligence (see G. Calabrese, “The Cost of Accidents,” (Yale, 1970)). For a good criticism of Calabrese’s new doctrine of torts, see Peter Huber, “Liability: The Legal Revolution and its Consequences,” (Basic Books, 1990)).

    Coase would turn like a pinwheel in his grave if he heard you saying that we should apply strict liabilty tort law to the problem of pollution! Coase clearly states in “The Problem of Social Cost” that all that is required is to provide clear and enforceable property rights (i.e., old-fashioned 19th century contract & tort law) and that it matters not to whom those rights are initially assigned: “I propose to show that the allocation of resources will be the same [under injured party pays] as it was when the damaging business was liable for the damage caused” [Coase, "The Firm, the Market, and the Law," (Chicago, 1988) p. 102]. Coase clearly states that the initial distribution of property rights and responsibilities is irrelevant to the final distribution because in either case, the market will trade rights until an optimal distribution is achieved.

    I do assert that the cost of climate change is borne most by poorer countries. Every long-term economic analysis I’ve seen agrees on this. Can you point me toward a peer-reviewed analysis that says otherwise? I’d be very interested to see an opposing point of view on this.

    Two other major failings of Coase: First, negotiation between polluters who live today and those affected, who mostly will live 100 years or more in the future, is impossible. The intertemporal obstacle to negotiations raises transaction costs through the roof.

    Second, it’s important to note that Coase ranks outcomes purely by total societal wealth, not fairness of distribution, so he falls victim to all the criticisms that have been lodged at Kaldor and Hicks. I take a more Rawlsian ethical position on this (but see my “Ethics in Geological Time” (http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/files/htw0q4/Ethics%20in%20Geological%20Time.pdf) for discussion of why Rawls falls short too and we need a more spiritual and communitarian ethics regarding obligations to distant future generations)

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  17. Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    Correction and apology: In my previous comment, I mistakenly said that Ronald Coase was dead. He is not. He is quite alive at 97, and I wish him good health and long life. I am sorry for my mistake.

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  19. Harry Haymuss Says:

    Sure, I take a brief hiatus and all sense of reality is lost around here. The Tower of Babel is alive and well, I see.

    What on Earth makes you guys think you can adequately discuss the finer points of adaptation vs. mitigation when you have no idea what it will take to adapt? Remember convection? Hot air rises? If you think convection is adequately represented in models you are living in lala land. Leveraging local convection against the effects on Hadley cell circulation via parameterization and thinking you have some semblance of reality is ludicrous.

    But hey, just go view the censored opinions at RC and you’ll keep thinking you know what’s going on. Sorry, but you’re putting the cart before the horse.

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  21. SteffenH Says:

    Jonathan, what you are referring to is one part of the Coase theorem and well explained in all economics textbooks. But it is only the first part. In later parts of his paper he discusses the implication of his “theorem” and it is certainly about what initial distribution of property rights would bring efficiency. I recommend you to read about Coase and efficiency in David Friedman’s “Laws Order” (http://www.daviddfriedman.com/laws_order/index.shtml).

    Your journey into intergenerationality is out of the context of our discussion. Beside even in this case we have no simple answer whether we should adapt or mitigate. We could bequeath a sufficient capital stock to facilitate adaptation in the future. Beside the problem of intergenerationality is more than a problem of transaction costs. Moreover it is about unknown preferences and about the fairness of redistribution between people with different income levels. All economic models assume a richer future. In this case it is even possible that future generations should compensate poor people in our generation.