Adapt to What?

In the war of dumb ideas, both liberals and some corporatist conservatives have joined forces for a pincer movement on rational citizens by promoting the spending of large amounts of taxpayer dollars to deal with climate change. Mitigation, of course, is the concept that humans are altering the planet's climate through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and funds should be spent to reduce emissions and minimize anthropogenic climate change. Adaptation is the acceptance that the Earth's climate is changing, either from natural or anthropogenic forces (or both), and that rather than spend money trying to reduce man-made GHG emissions, it is more appropriate (for whatever reason: economic, social, etc.) to adapt to the changing climate rather than attempt to mitigate it. Liberals generally favor the former; corporatist conservatives the latter.

What is it all about? Money. Seeking ways to reduce GHG emissions via new technologies and approaches is big business. So is adaptation. The beneficiaries from the push for adaptation include governments, infrastructure contractors and suppliers, and the professional science, technology, and engineering associations that accredit those working on infrastructure projects -- and their members. Who are often the most vigorous promoters of adaptation? These same groups and individuals. Follow the money. An obvious suite of vested interests that cannot be relied upon to self-regulate.

My question to the climate adaptionists is as follows: adapt to what? Climates are always changing: always have, always will. There are many climate cycles on global, regional, and local scales -- undoubtedly a number of which we haven't yet discovered. Our current climate prediction capacities are woefully inferior on a global scale, and at the regional/local level, they are a scientific joke. Since effectively all adaptation projects being discussed are at the regional/local levels, what climate are we proposing to adapt to?

One suspects that the adaptionists have no idea beyond the vague claims of a future climate that involves more drought, less drought, more floods, less floods, more precipitation, less precipitation, hotter, colder, more extreme versions of all of these options, and -- undoubtedly -- they'll all occur for the same region. No matter what happens to the weather or climate, someone will blame some event or pattern on climate change. So should we adapt for every possible contingency in every possible locality? Good luck funding that. And if we shouldn't, what possibilities should we adapt to?

Some major Canadian cities (Calgary and Toronto) have experienced severe flooding events this year. This has brought the adaptionists out in full force, clamoring for us to adapt. But nobody has been able to conclusively link either of these events to climate change (whether natural or anthropogenic).One wonders if the adaptionists are familiar with the concept of a frequency distribution for extreme events. We are going to have 1-in-500 year floods, 1-in-1000 year droughts, 1-in-200 year heat waves, etc. These would happen in an unchanging climate, and since climates change naturally and continually, they will always occur.

Engineers already design infrastructure for extreme events. Ditches, flood control channels, and storm-water/sewer systems are currently designed for some -- rather arbitrarily determined -- 1-in-xx years event. Overlooked by many alarmists, the magnitude of any given 1-in-xx years event changes over time. In order for adaptionists to be able to place any of their (currently unspecified) recommendations on a solid scientific footing, they would need to have high-accuracy and fully-calibrated climate prediction models at the local scale capable of projecting what the change in a particular 1-in-xx years event would be over time. Good luck. To the best of my knowledge, we are nowhere near this predictive capacity. Consequently, back to my original question for the adaptionists: adapt to what?

Because climates cycle, what happens if we attempt to adapt to some projected future climate, and we're wrong? What if, in a certain region, the trend of increasing flood magnitudes reverses itself in the next decade and we move into a multi-decadal drought with no extreme flood events? Seems like a lot of wasted money in times of very limited budgetary resources.

Some authors appear to be just throwing ideas at the wall hoping they'll stick. For example, one academic made the following recent postulates after the flooding in Calgary and Toronto:

"When infrastructure within cities is being replaced or built new, it should be upgraded taking extreme weather conditions into account. For example, at the time of new build, the cost of installing a 20 cm sewer drain pipe is immaterial relative to the cost of installing a 30 cm drain pipe (which has about twice the flow capacity), yet the larger capacity line may save untold $millions if it eliminates future sewer back-ups."

Exactly what "extreme weather conditions" should we take "into account" when building or upgrading municipal infrastructure? The predictions from the nonexistent or highly inaccurate climate models? That sounds fiscally irresponsible. And just purposefully building oversized sewer drain pipes in case some future event may occur? Equally irresponsible. Perhaps the author of the article in question doesn't realize that you need to maintain minimum flow velocities in sewer systems to avoid solids deposition in the pipes, which can lead to blockages. Thus, in a number of cases, overdesigning our infrastructure for hypothetical future extreme climate events can not only be financially imprudent, but can cause more problems than it may prevent.

We also see claims that such infrastructure overdesign for possible future extreme weather events is unequivocally a positive return-on-investment. Nonsense. Show us the detailed cost-benefit studies (which seem to be sorely lacking). If I propose we spend $1 billion today to prevent $1 billion in flood damage 10 years from now, is that a good investment? Not unless you live in a period of negative interest rates (or choose to be oblivious to the time value of money). Should we spend $50 billion dollars over the next decade to save $100 billion from extreme weather events over the next century? To answer the question clearly, we need to place both costs and benefits in net present value terms, which requires us to know prevailing interest rates over a century, as well as the dates on which the extreme events will occur, and their costs. Simply not possible. We could move to probabilistic terms for such judgments, but this also requires us not only to predict financial details, but also to reliably predict the annual risks from the events and their associated costs out over 100 years. Once again, not possible. It's not only exceedingly difficult to predict what the 1-in-xx years event will be 50 years from now, it's effectively impossible to predict what it will cost in damages relative to the same event happening today.

We're in a doubly dangerous era of crony capitalism led by well-connected corporatists coupled to a period where so many in government feel they must 'do something' (anything, but just something). This is bad economics. The default position is always the do nothing option, and until adaptionists can prove to us at high confidence what we are supposed to adapt to, nothing is exactly what we should be doing. Sometimes, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, the best public policy is just to respond to events as they occur as best we can, rather than flailing about hoping to prevent something you cannot clearly define or predict.

Sierra Rayne holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry and writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @rayne_sierra.