Stehr and von Storch on Climate Policy

September 29th, 2005

Posted by: admin

Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch have collaborated on another brilliant essay on climate policy. (Longtime Prometheus readers will recall their earlier essay on the danagers of overselling climate science, here.) We are happy to provide an English translation of their most recent collaboration below, which first appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 21 September 2005. Your comments are encouraged. Read the whole thing.

The Sluggishness of Politics and Nature

Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch

Even before 11 September 2001, the American Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – of which little good has been spoken in the past days – published a list of the three most probable catastrophes threatening the US: a terrorist attack on the city of New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco and a direct hit by a hurricane on the city of New Orleans. The Houston Chronicle asserted in that the hurricane is the deadliest danger. There are not many similar examples of accurate predictions. And yet there was a criminal lack of precautions taken in New Orleans.

The disastrous results of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and in the surrounding states are a perfect example of a failed climate policy. The failure, however, does not lie in the Bush administration’s refusal to agree to the Kyoto Protocol, as German Environment Minister Trittin has claimed.

It simply makes no sense, after the catastrophic force of Hurricane Katrina, to resort to new superlatives and to claim that this extreme weather event is proof that the force and duration of tropical cyclones will increase in the future. The first order of business should not be to wonder whether Katrina is an indicator that anthropogenic global warming is the immediate cause of the devastation in New Orleans. We can do without these debates, or we can happily leave them in the hands of science.

Climate researchers should be asked, however: Assuming for a moment that the US, as well as China, Russia and India, were radically to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases to a hitherto quite improbable degree, when might we be able to discern the fruits of this climate policy, when will the consequences of hurricanes such as Katrina be less grave, and exactly how large will these lesser damages be? Interesting questions. For our society and for others, however, it is much more important to ask: How can we protect ourselves in the coming decades from extremes of weather like Hurricane Katrina, heat waves, floods and other extremes; and what should a climate policy that takes just this as its goal look like? And how is it that climate policy up to now, particularly in Germany, has been almost exclusively devoted to the reduction of greenhouse gases, and thus can only comment on catastrophes like the one that occurred in New Orleans with an air of smug superiority?

In answering this question, we first come face to face with several interesting characteristics shared by environmental, education and research policy alike.

The gains or losses in these policy areas are difficult to calculate; their successes and failures become apparent, if at all, only after decades; coming generations reap their rewards or suffer from their mistakes. The voters, reinforced and fostered by politics, have a short-term memory. They will only pay for what affects them at first hand.

Environmental policy, however, like the other two policy areas, is something whose effects, in many cases, are only apparent in the long term. Because this is the case, it is at the mercy of current events. Extreme weather events wash the topic of climate policy to the surface. And there is one more common characteristic: Environmental, research and education policy are crucial policy areas in terms of power. Anyone who can make a name for himself or herself in these areas assumes one of the better positions in the future economic and political pecking order. This is power, and power is what interests politics. How, then, do we find solutions in spite of these difficulties? Let us examine climate policy.

The consensus on climate change that has prevailed up to now and the policy measures that have been drawn from this consensus lead to a dead end. The alternative to this way of thinking is called adaptation. This entails political measures devoted – not exclusively, indeed, but certainly primarily – to the question of adapting to the expected climate changes.

What is the crucial difference? The present consensus on the cause of climate change always leads to one and the same result in terms of policy: reduce greenhouse gases, particularly emissions of carbon dioxide. CO2 is bad. This point is stressed incessantly. This mantra has little to do with the practical problem of protecting the environment and avoiding the dangerous results of environmental changes. It does explain, however, why the measures taken up to now have been so unsuccessful. They are strategies of moderation. The proper strategy, however, as New Orleans could hardly demonstrate more clearly, is one of adaptation.

Survival by adaptation means taking precautions by means of a multitude of concrete measures, with the goal of meeting past and expected weather extremes without massive damages in the future. The Dutch reaction to the devastating storm tide in a cold winter night in 1953 is exemplary. The Thames Barrier, which prevents flooding in London, England, is an obvious further example of the power of precautions.

Precautionary measures extend from the simplest provisions – where were the thousands of buses to evacuate poor, sick and old people from New Orleans before the storm hit? – to adaptive strategies effective in the long term; for instance, building codes, forbidding settlement in endangered areas, innovations such as intelligent dykes, the renaturalization of rivers, education and information campaigns regarding what to do in an emergency, etc.

Accommodation and precaution – in other word, adaptive measures – are essentially easier politically to enforce and to legitimize. And they have one enormous advantage compared to all strategies of moderation, whose success may (or may not) become apparent in the distant future: Adaptive processes have a relatively brief planning interval. When solutions to a problem must be found by means of innovations in science and technology, they can be produced much more easily if they are conceived as adaptive measures. The knowledge-based economy makes possible something that was long unimaginable: the reconciliation of ecological and economic aims. If, for example, the traditional objectives of entrepreneurial trade – that is, maximizing returns – are to be retained in the future, the resources of the old economy will be handled more sparingly, more efficiently and more productively. Accommodations will be made. The dynamic of social transformation has expanded, and so too have the opportunities to adapt to novelties and to dangers.

Adaptive strategies also allow several goals at once to be achieved more easily: improving quality of life, reducing social inequity and increasing political participation are not mutually exclusive. The risks and dangers associated with uncertainties – new technology, for instance – are fewer in the case of adaptive measures. Adaptive processes can become the motor of what we call sustainable management. Adaptation can lead to the reduction of greenhouse gases, because adaptation and moderation are not mutually exclusive. However: reduction does not necessarily lead to adaptation. Any form of sustainability is local.

We must learn to think in a new way. Nature is sluggish. The modest, politically enforceable forms of moderating greenhouse gases discussed up to now have hardly any influence on climate change, despite claims to the contrary. The reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases needed to “stop” climate change amounts to about 70 percent.

How such a reduction is to be achieved without ignoring the hopes and expectations of more than 80 percent of the world’s population is not currently a topic of discussion. If these contradictions are resolved by stressing what is feasible, then it quickly becomes evident: the majority of politically realistic measures tend in any case to be adaptive strategies.

These strategies describe what is possible. One only has to consider the warnings that climate change will result in catastrophic famines and epidemics. In other words, it is health that is at stake here. But personal modes of behavior are much more crucial determinants of health than climatic conditions. And people can influence their own behavior more easily and sustainably than any attempt purposefully to change the global climate. Adaptation, then, means giving every individual the chance to be able to react to changes.

And yet: the fear of catastrophes, prompted by extreme weather events, is used to win public support for plans of moderation. This, however, is a very dubious strategy. In politically relevant timeframes, the measures of moderation propagated by science and sanctioned by policy have no effect on the probability and the force of extreme events. Thus it is imaginable that the public will rebel against the burdens imposed on it. The climatic dynamic demands politically enforceable adaptive strategies that will remain stable over much longer time periods. This degree of consistency can hardly be reached on the basis of fear of extreme events.

Paradoxically, the fact is: to the extent that our knowledge about the part human activity plays in global warming improves and expands, the opportunities in modern societies to negotiate sustainable and planned reductions of greenhouse gases actually diminish – to say nothing of the question of who should cover the costs and how the benefit should be divided.

Adaptation, by contrast, works. Precautionary and preventative measures are effective in preventing fatalities from heat, for example. While a tragedy occurred in Chicago in mid-July 1995, with more than 700 “heat deaths,” in the same summer the so-called “hot weather health warning watch system” saved the lives of about 300 people in the city of Philadelphia. The occurrence of extremely high temperatures in Philadelphia in 1993 and 1994 prompted the development of an efficient warning system and social networks that benefited the elderly and other persons at risk. What does this mean? In reality, it was the isolation of elderly people in Chicago who did not know how to help themselves, or the poverty (and thus also: helplessness), which was much worse in this region ten years ago, that led to the high number of fatalities.

This is also the chief factor at the global scale: Anyone who battles poverty creates the basic conditions to ensure that climate change will not entail the catastrophes that politicians continue to invoke in promoting moderation. Adaptation means: disseminating knowledge nd creating new opportunities. Wherever people are completely at the mercy of changes, there will always be catastrophes – including those caused by climate change.

An environmental policy that has comprehended this would truly be of lasting effect. And enforceable. It would prevent another New Orleans from happening.

Professor Nico Stehr is Karl Mannheim Professor for Cultural Studies at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen. Hans von Storch is a director of the Institute for Coastal Research, GKSS Research Center and a Professor of Meteorology at the University of Hamburg.

18 Responses to “Stehr and von Storch on Climate Policy”

  1. Kit Stolz Says:

    Thank you from bringing this to our attention. And yes, there is no substitute for thoughtful adaptation and effective planning, esp. when it comes to natural disasters. But doesn’t it make sense to thoughtfully adapt to new conditions (with proper planning and funding on a local level) AND to reduce CO2 emissions?

    If a patient is suffering from pneumonia, we take measures to make sure his symptoms don’t kill him, such as treating his cough and making sure he gets enough oxygen, but we also, if at all possible, attack the underlying cause of the sickness. Is that so crazy?

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for you comments. I’d bet that von Storch and Stehr would agree (but I’ll let them respond themselves). For my part, I’d agree that adaptation and mitigation both make sense, but for different reasons. Once we begin to conflate those reasons with one another we find that what should be complementary policy approaches are then presented as trade-offs. See this paper for more discussion of this point:

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  5. Mark Bahner Says:

    “But doesn’t it make sense to thoughtfully adapt to new conditions (with proper planning and funding on a local level) AND to reduce CO2 emissions?”

    It depends…

    1) Are CO2 emissions causing substantial harm?

    2) Can that harm be significantly reduced?

    3) By reasonable measures?

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  7. Jonathan Dursi Says:

    So let me get this straight.

    Scientists, to maintain their `honest broker’ status, should avoid commenting directly on policy issues ( )

    People like the bloggers at Real Climate are doing a diservice to science by presenting arguments that suggest there is climate change, contributing to the `politicization of science’. ( )

    Getting science involved in policy debates questions the integrity of the scientific process ( ) and the credibility of science more generally ( ).

    People who comment on the misuse of science by right-wing think tanks are also calling into question the integrity and credibility of science ( ).

    Science academies should *certainly* stay out of policy debates ( ).

    But articles by von Storch which advocate particular policy approaches and endorse a particular administrations climate policy are fine, and well worth reading.

    Have I more or less got that right?

    It was bad enough when your posts were simply tedious, finding false equivalences between those who actively try to push junk science into a debate and those who call them on it. Now that the posts have gotten into active advocacy (and thus, into startling levels of intellectual dishonesty), things are immesurably worse.

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  9. Steve Bloom Says:

    The idea that there is a link between global warming and increasing damage from hurricanes is irretrievably lodged in the public consciousness. See this week’s Time magazine cover if you don’t believe me. Rather than complain that it shouldn’t be the case, we should be worried about appropriately channeling the concern.

    The real problem with the adaptation-only approach is that it ignores the fact that enhanced hurricanes are just one small aspect of the complex of problems resulting from GW. Some of these problems (e.g., ocean acidification and melting of the Tibetan plateau glaciers) are not very suitable for adaptation plus will have a major impact on that 80% the authors express concern about. As well, we have the great unknown of various potential tipping points that could be reached as CO2 concentrations increase (and from which that same 80% would likely suffer disproportionately).

    Adaptation to hurricanes is of course wholly justifiable in the absence of any GW effect, but otherwise the approach advocated by the article couldn’t be more wrong.

    Yes, it’s really hard to conceive of getting countries like Germany and the US to reduce their emissions by that 70% (and ultimately more than that), but it is an unavoidable part of what needs to happen.

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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for taking the time to comment on our site. Though I must say that you have missed the mark in characterizing my work by a pretty large margin. Some responses:

    1. You characterize me as stating “Scientists, to maintain their `honest broker’ status, should avoid commenting directly on policy issues.” No. This is completely opposite of what I have written. Please have another look.

    2. You characterize me as stating, “People like the bloggers at Real Climate are doing a diservice to science by presenting arguments that suggest there is climate change, contributing to the `politicization of science’.” No. This too is not even close to what I have written. Please have another look.

    3. You characterize me as saying, “Getting science involved in policy debates questions the integrity of the scientific process and the credibility of science more generally.” No. This is far from what I have written. Please have another look.

    4. You characterize me as saying, “People who comment on the misuse of science by right-wing think tanks are also calling into question the integrity and credibility of science.” No. I have no clue where this came from. I don’t think I use the phrase “integrity and credibility of science.”

    5. You characterize me as saying, “Science academies should *certainly* stay out of policy debates.” No. Here is what I actually said,”Science academies face choices in how they interact with the broader societies of which they are a part. Such choices ought to be made with a clear understanding of the consequences for both science and society. There are undesirable consequences of scienc academies either seeking to focus only on science or taking on the role of political advocates.”

    That is 0 for 5. If you have substantive reflections on Stehr and von Storch’s article (or for that matter my own work) then I am sure that they (and I) would be happy to hear them. If you’d just like to rant, then we are happy to provide an outlet.

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  13. Paul dougherty Says:

    Mr. Dursi,
    I have followed all of your links and cannot agree with a single one of the conclusions you have drawn. You evidently have a strong viewpoint which does not mesh too well with an open-minded site that discusses the philosophy of science.
    Might I point out that in its quest for truth science strives to nurture all viewpoints and if its purpose is to squash any, then it defeats itself. You might consult Kuhn or Popper to fully appreciate this.
    Every discipline has its own way of seeking truth. The method of science would be a miserable failure in law where argument is the best approach or in journalism where authority and the reliable interview is best. Likewise when lawyers or journalists bring their methodology to scientific discussions they are miserable failures.
    It seems to me that you worked hard to prepare a case against Mr. Pielke. As an aside, would you put the same effort into explaining to me why the work of scientists who are funded by right wing think tanks or industry is not to be trusted while the work of scientists funded by environmental groups or the like is considered authoritative. I keep asking around for this and have yet to get a satisfactory answer. Maybe you can help.

    Paul Dougherty

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  15. Eli Rabett Says:

    BTW, have you perhaps looked at the latest issue of the magazine (not newspaper) where the v. Storch and Stehr article was published?,1518,377281,00.html

    I’ll translate the headline and first paragraph for you:

    Warming exceeds critical value

    Von Volker Mrasek

    New computer simulations lead one to think that even in this century global warming could exceed a critical limit. An irreversible process threatens the global climate.

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  17. Eli Rabett Says:

    Paul, unless you think that various government funding agencies, research establishments and national academies are environmental groups or the like, I fail to see your analogy.

    Roger, perhaps rather than claiming that you have not said something (which leaves a lot of ground to cover), it would be best if you could tersely summarize your positions 1-5. In many of those cases, after reading your articles, I though Jonathan was fairly close to the mark.

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  19. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for these several constructive comments. I’d be happy to tersely summarize as you have requested.

    1. Scientists should be enagaged in policy and politics, and they have choices, with vastly different consenquences, in how they enagage. they should be aware of these choices and their consequences.

    2. It is untenable to claim to a focus only on science when you are seeking to contribute to political and policy debates.

    3. Science is critically important to decision making.

    4. Groups from all political persuasions politicize science in deleterious ways; to address this issue requires focusing on the underlying conditioning factors, and avoiding politicizing the politicization of science.

    5. See above.

    There is plenty enough on this site to amply support these statements. I welcome thoughtful debate on these topics, as there is room for plenty of discussion on these complex subjects.

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  21. Paul dougherty Says:

    Mr. Rabett,
    I could very well have included the agencies you list in my question. All sponsors represent some kind of bias no matter how small or subtle. Yet the scientific process has always successfully dealt with that. This is done mainly by focusing on the work itself. Ad hominem viewpoints have no place, which is one of the reasons why science has survived for centuries through all knds of human turmoil and collective failures.
    I got slightly off topic with that query because seeing von Storch discussed here brought to mind his resignation over the Balinas/Soon article on the hockey stick. Many of the attacks on Balinas/Soon tried to discredit their work because it was funded by The American Petroleum Institute. Indeed 20% of it was but the other 80% was funded by NOAA and NASA. von Storch and others later used science to examine the hockey stick discussion with good results. Those who look for winners/loosers and make judgments based on sponsors continue to miss what’s really going on..

    The point is… who does the funding means nothing. The work speaks for itself.

    Paul Dougherty

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  23. Eli Rabett Says:

    Hmm, well then, given the current regime in the US, I guess the funding agency bias is against any claims of human influence.

    OTOH, most of the criticism of Baliunas and Soon that I saw, first discussed their methods, noted that they were total crap and speculated that the only reason they wrote the thing was to placate their patrons.

    Perhaps our host at some point had a comment on that paper?

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  25. Dano Says:

    I respect and enjoy Steve Bloom’s comments. And:

    >The real problem with the adaptation-only approach is that it ignores the fact that enhanced hurricanes are just one small aspect of the complex of problems resulting from GW.<

    What vS and esp. RP have been getting at for some time is that the way we are doing things now is not working.

    Crafting yet another brilliant policy fix won’t mean a thing if the public won’t accept it. There is no vision or values tied to this vision for Kyoto-like solutions. Cutting C doesn’t get at the underlying, fundamental way our wasteful society got into this mess in the first place.

    vS is NOT saying scientists should become policy advocates. He is saying stop getting bogged down in this fruitless, wasteful battle of GW attribution. These are the terms of the debate that were selected by somebody else, and as such the debate going on forever is the strategy – action means a suboptimal outcome.

    The environment as a separate ‘thing’ serves to set the table to devalue that ‘thing’ – the classic subject-object relationship that I prattle on about occasionally.

    Adaptation says ‘we are a part of this’, and as such gives responsibility to each to solve the problem.



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  27. Ross McNaughton Says:

    Re: Steve Bloom’s comments:

    “Yes, it’s really hard to conceive of getting countries like Germany and the US to reduce their emissions by that 70% (and ultimately more than that)”

    How hard will it be to convince India and China to do the same? Especially when many of the environmentalist advocating GW also oppose them damming their rivers for Hydro Power.

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  29. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Carl Pope presents arguments against adaptation here:

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  31. Mark Bahner Says:

    “Yes, it’s really hard to conceive of getting countries like Germany and the US to reduce their emissions by that 70% (and ultimately more than that)”

    It’s not hard for me to conceive that countries like Germany and the US will reduce their emissions by 70% relative to emissions in 2005.

    I think that’s a ***probability***……………………… the 2050 to 2100 time frame.

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  33. Karlee Says:

    I’ve read the above debate with interest.
    I agree with Kit Stolz that there needs to be more than one approach to the issue of living in a warming world.

    Adaptation in the original article was discussed largely from a macro perspective – the action of cities and states. This will be essential, of course. But since most pollution (air and otherwise) is from non-point sources, such as homes and cars, the real adaptation benefits must come from waking up the public to the effects of simple everyday behaviours. Here mass education and financial sticks and carrots need to be developed. The result could be both adaptive change and grassroots reduction of the problem, more particularly in developed countries.

    I am skeptical of approaches used in various kinds of “War on… (drugs, terrorism, fill the blank)”, but am reminded of the huge drives in WW2(on all sides of the conflict) to collect metals and other materials for recycling and reuse. People in those times sensed the critical urgency and personal contribution called for and responded. There is a need for people to be shown a path out of hopelessness in the face of what is a huge global problem and shown the efficacy of making choices as simple as whether to leave lights on in unused rooms and what car to buy. Of course those of us who are priveledged have far more options in this regard. However, as wealth distribution is not static – witness the growth of (disparate) wealth in India and China, education and incentives can be prudently applied globally.

    In short I believe we have to adapt and reduce C, both at macro and micro levels.

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  35. John Monro Says:


    I am not at all sympathetic to the thesis that adaptation to climate change is a more practical, feasible or affordable way to deal with anthropogenic global warming than climate mitigation through cutting down fossil fuel use. The problem as I see it is that “adaptation” is precisely what most global warming sceptics, self-interested parties for the most part, want to hear. It takes them off the hook, no amelioration of carbon emissions is required, no thought to our future, don’t bother to look at the figures or best predictions, all these are reduced to an unimportant side show, carry on as we are, we’ll just adapt. But what about the farmers and populations in the immense areas of the world dependent on a reliable supply of summer water from melting glaciers? How do they adapt when the glaciers are gone? What about the populations living in low lying areas, islands or deltas, how do they adapt? What about intensively farmed areas, on which the world population of 6 billion depend for basic foodstuffs, if aridity and heat or salinisation reduce output, how do we all adapt then?

    What we have is a degree of climate change already in the pipeline, which we are going to have to adapt to – that’s a given and is unavoidable. What we don’t know is to what degree climate change is in fact going to make further adaptation impossible. If sea levels rise next century by some predications, however good the protection, many of the world’s major cities could be inundated, how do we adapt to that? It seems to me to be pointless even bothering to investigate global warming, if we aren’t going to pay any attention to the messages we are getting. The simple fact is that carbon dioxide may be odourless, colourless, tasteless and transparent, but it is still a pollutant of our atmosphere, to the tune of billions of tons per year. We have no right to pollute the only home we have, and we must stop doing so. Simple really. All other considerations are secondary.

    What is particularly galling is that we have the technology to substitute in large measure for fossil fuels, the cost will be nowhere as high as “adapting” to global warming, and it will liberate humanity from the yoke of of an unsustainable economy. The only thing we do lack is the will to pursue this alternative course. Pushing “adaptation” to global warming as a means of dealing with the problem, is like providing sickness benefit and a home, or maybe imprisonment, to a drug addict without making any attempt to get the addict off drugs and back to being a useful member of society – a not inappropriate simile for our world’s addction to fossil fuels.