Hurricane Sandy and the Case for Adaptation to Climate Change

Mitigation Alone Is Not Enough

In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, many commentators are arguing that global warming is causing increasingly severe weather events in the Northeastern United States. I am not qualified to judge assertions about the link between global warming (the accurate phrase I prefer to the weaselly euphemism “climate change”) and worsening weather in the Bos-Wash corridor where I live. For the sake of argument, let us stipulate that it is correct. It does not follow that the most cost-effective response to climate change along the Atlantic seaboard is mitigation alone, rather than a mix of adaptation and mitigation, or even adaptation alone.

“Mitigation” refers to reduction of CO2 emissions that cause or could cause global warming. “Adaptation” refers to measures taken to reduce the effects of global warming as it occurs. For decades leading environmentalists have focused on mitigation alone, by means of reduced energy consumption and/or shifts to energy sources that emit fewer or no greenhouse gases. Rather as peace activists during the Cold War discouraged talk about civil defense, lest it make nuclear war seem more thinkable, many Greens seem to believe that discussing adaptation would reduce support for mitigation, which they hope will be driven by a public sense of urgency if not panic.

But for economic and political reasons, adaptation needs to be considered along with mitigation. The economic reason is that in some cases adapting to the local disruptions caused by climate change may be more cost-effective, from the perspective of individual nations or the world, than much more costly mitigation efforts. The political reason is the political difficulty of persuading people everywhere to sacrifice in order to prevent costs that will fall heavily on a limited number of places.

Let’s consider the economic argument first. Much of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy along the Northeastern seaboard could have been averted by somewhat costly but simple adaptive measures, including higher seawalls; New York subways with storm doors; construction of buildings on higher ground; and, in suburbs, putting power lines underground instead of above-ground where they can be knocked over by falling branches and trees in high winds. (In my downtown Washington neighborhood, all of the power lines are underground, and electricity has never gone off in a series of storms that have left millions of my metro area neighbors without electricity). The cost of these measures must be weighed against the loss of life and the property and economic damage that has occurred in their absence.

So that’s Option A—storm-proofing coastal cities like Washington and New York and Boston against more frequent hurricanes and tropical storms, of the kinds that routinely impact cities like Miami and Houston and New Orleans. The devastation caused by Katrina was the exception rather than the rule in the historic hurricane-prone zone.

Option B is immediately and permanently raising the price of energy, not only in the U.S. but in the entire world, in order to bring about a rapid transition away from hydrocarbons to sources of energy that do not emit greenhouse gases (nuclear energy, if we are rational; inefficient, diffuse, acreage-consuming energy sources like wind, solar, biomass and hydropower, if we are irrational anti-nuclear Greens). Even small increases in energy prices impose enormous cumulative costs on consumers and producers alike, and are particularly harmful to the poor in developed countries and to poor nations.

When the trade-off is viewed in this way, it is hard to argue that the reasonable course is to go for Option B—global energy austerity and an expensive crash conversion to clean energy—rather than Option A, storm-proofing U.S. coastal cities and suburbs by spending slightly more on hurricane-resistant infrastructure and construction.

That is the economic argument for adaptation. The political argument is dispositive. Every global and national attempt to encourage a crash conversion to clean energy sources has foundered on the unwillingness of the public, in democracies and dictatorships alike, to tolerate higher energy prices now in order to avert dangers decades or generations down the road.

But what if the dangers are already here—in the form of storms like Hurricane Sandy? This doesn’t solve the political problem, because the costs of global warming (again, we are assuming it is real) tend to be localized. How many New Yorkers are willing to pay much higher energy bills, in order to prevent marginal cropland in Oklahoma from turning to desert? If the New Yorkers are unwilling to make that sacrifice, why should Oklahomans pay higher energy bills in order to spare New Yorkers the expense of building sea-walls, subway covers, and storm-proof electrical grids?

The point is not that adaptation should be preferred to mitigation. The point is that a mixture of adaptation and mitigation make sense, if, as seems likely, anthropogenic global warming is occurring. It makes no sense to call on all Americans and the generally poorer human race as a whole to suffer immediate and prolonged energy austerity, in order to spare the relatively affluent residents of the Bosh-Wash corridor the need to rethink their zoning and spend more on infrastructure in an age of storms worsened by global warming.

Photo credit: AP Images