I’d like to offer up a very concrete example that illustrates the problem with the current dynamic in the political debate over the extent to which thinking about adaptation should be explicitly made a part of the political discussion about our societal response to climate change.
I wrote a story for the newspaper a year ago discussing the issue of adaptation in our national debate. In it, I considered the example of the New Mexico Climate Change Action Plan. The plan was buttressed by a series of reports discussing the problems climate change would pose for New Mexico, especially in terms of water supply. The recommended policy responses are exclusively about greenhouse gas mitigation. Here is how Jim Norton, one of the senior state officials involved in developing the plan, explained the approach in that February 2007 story:
[T]there was a fear, Norton said, that too much emphasis (on adaptation) “could sort of divert attention away from solving the problem of growing greenhouse gas emissions.”
This is not a rhetorical exercise. This is a major effort at the state government level, with the backing of a powerful politician, that has explicitly excluded adaptation from the discussion. It is not that there is no discussion about adaptation underway in New Mexico. But by this very explicit decision, the discussion of adaptation has been robbed of the benefit of a statewide discussion backed by the highest level of the state’s policymakers. The water community in New Mexico has been left to its own devices on this issue. No statewide meetings have been convened with the sanction of the governor. No major policy reports have been prepared discussing broad water-based policy initiatives to respond to climate change.
For a prominent advocate like David Roberts to argue that “just about everyone in the climate debate” favors “a mix of adaptation and mitigation” is to willfully ignore the way climate policy is actually playing out in this country.
OK, that explains your concern. There is something to it, but I will continue to play devil’s advocate here.
First, is this how it’s playing out “in this country” as you say, or just locally in NM? Consider that we, your neighbors here in TX, have been making some progress in water policy and won’t even acknowledge, at the state government level, that any unusual climate change exists. Governor Perry speaks highly of the egregious Senator Inhofe’s efforts in this regard.
More to the point, in defense of Norton, could NM’s water problems just be considered independent of climate change? It seems to me that climate change is just one of several stresses on the system you have set up. Is it not fair to say “water is a real problem but we should put it in a different category”?
Your claim “by this very explicit decision, the discussion of adaptation has been robbed of the benefit of a statewide discussion backed by the highest level of the state’s policymakers” then seems rather too strong. Everything is related to climate, but you can’t discuss everything at once.
There can and will be statewide discussions of water in New Mexico. That’s pretty much unavoidable in the long run.
All that said, I think cities and smaller states in the US can do very little about mitigation that isn’t mostly symbolic, with the possible exception of alternative transportation.
The rhetoric in New Mexico belies your formulation.
The rhetoric uses the climate change->water problem link as the linchpin of its argument for mitigation, arguing (as the NRDC did in its report) that western water problems caused by climate change are critical. If it is true that, as you say, “NM’s water problems just be considered independent of climate change,” then climate change is robbed of its value in supporting an argument that climate change is a problem. It either is important or it isn’t, and if it is important then it must be important for both mitigation and adaptation discussions. You can’t just use it for one, pretending the climate change->water connection matters, and then discard it when it comes to discussion of adaptation.