Political Scene

Climate Policy Needs a New Approach
David Applegate

Environmental groups and European leaders raised a hue and cry in March when President Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide. At a March 29 press conference, Bush stated that “circumstances have changed since the campaign. We’re now in an energy crisis.” Bush linked his decision with the need to bring more natural gas resources to market before the power industry shifts to generating more electricity with natural gas rather than with carbon-intensive coal.
While pledging to work “with our allies to reduce greenhouse gases,” Bush cautioned that he would not take any actions “that will harm our economy and hurt American workers.” That statement reflects the new president’s concern with the Kyoto Accords, signed by his predecessor in 1997 but never brought before the Senate for ratification. Sticking to a more oft-stated campaign promise, Bush has asked the State Department to determine how the United States would withdraw from the treaty, which set limits on carbon dioxide emissions for developed nations.
Repudiating the policies of one’s predecessor is a time-honored approach, but it is not politically sufficient for an issue that the public perceives as a persistent problem. And climate change is just such an issue. Public perception demands that Bush now articulate his own strategy for addressing climate change.

No regrets

In mapping a new policy, the president would be well advised to reframe the issue in order to move beyond the current impasse in diplomatic and congressional negotiations. That means moving beyond carbon dioxide, which has proven to be a political non-starter.
Both sides of the climate debate accept that carbon dioxide levels are increasing, and there is fairly broad agreement that humans have been responsible for those increases in the past century. But beyond that, many politicians doubt any claims of a scientific consensus. Far more than President Clinton, President Bush will hear conflicting views on the link between carbon-dioxide levels and climatic warming — indeed, on whether warming is even happening and whether warming would be beneficial or harmful.
It makes sense to consider policy alternatives that produce benefits regardless of whether humans are indeed warming the planet. Such “no regrets” strategies help achieve policy objectives not directly related to climate change. The greatest advantage of “no regrets” policies is that they can be enacted without awaiting scientific agreement on human contributions to climate change or the magnitude and extent of future impacts of a changing climate. They are worth doing with today’s climate. Policy-makers have proposed a number of such strategies, many focusing on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and soot particles, which not only contribute to air pollution but also have a warming effect on the atmosphere.
What policy could be more appropriate in “no regrets” terms than one seeking to reduce current vulnerability to weather, both in the United States and around the world? Such vulnerability is increasing for reasons unrelated to climate change, but policies to improve resilience to today’s weather would also make it easier for us to adapt to a future, warmer and wetter climate.

Resilient today, adaptable tomorrow

Daniel Sarewitz — a former Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow — and Roger Pielke Jr. supplied one of the most convincing arguments for this approach in “Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock,” which appeared last July in The Atlantic Monthly. Sarewitz and Pielke do an excellent job of analyzing why the climate change debate has stalled over carbon dioxide, and then they propose how to reframe the debate in terms of reducing society’s vulnerability to weather. As Sarewitz and Pielke point out, such an approach sidesteps the “determined and powerful opposition” that faces any efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.
Geologists often express frustration when politicians attribute individual weather events to global climate change. Along similar lines, Sarewitz and Pielke argue that disasters like Hurricane Mitch, which killed more than 10,000 people in Central America in 1998, “will become more common and more deadly regardless of global warming. Underlying the havoc in Central America were poverty, poor land-use practices, a degraded local environment, and inadequate emergency preparedness — conditions that will not be alleviated by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.”
In the United States, more and more people are moving into harm’s way, bringing their wealth with them to coastal areas where they are vulnerable to hurricanes, floods and tsunamis. It is estimated that by 2025, three-quarters of Americans will live within 80 miles of a major coastline, up from 55 percent today.
The intensity of severe weather does not have to increase in order to cause greater and greater losses of life and property. As William Hooke of the American Meteorological Society has noted, extreme events are the way that our planet conducts its business. The big difference in terms of impact is not the size of natural phenomena, but who is there to experience them.
While it is true that natural climate variations have been much greater in the distant past, a more relevant observation is that modern populations and attendant infrastructure have built up during a time of relative climatic stability. Whether human-induced or natural, climate change will test our adaptability and resilience. Sea-level rise, for example, could render coastal cities even more susceptible to damage from storms and flooding.
Sarewitz and Pielke note recent research showing that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been melting for thousands of years,thus limiting the role of human-induced warming as the “culprit.” Such a finding does not eliminate the problem, but it does suggest the need for a different solution. Again, building resilience today will provide a long-term benefit, whether or not human-induced warming is to blame.
Sarewitz and Pielke recognize that the very mention of adaptation sends a chill down both sides of the climate change debate. To those who favor action to stop global warming, policies aimed at adaptation are tantamount to surrender. For those who see no threat, adaptation is unnecessary.
But stalemate is not inevitable, because “there is a huge potential constituency for efforts focused on adaptation: everyone who is in any way subject to the effects of weather.” Sarewitz and Pielke go on to say that such a constituency could form the basis of a revitalized international climate change policy focused “on coordinating disaster relief, debt relief, and development assistance, and on generating and providing information on climate that participating countries could use in order to reduce their vulnerability.”
Their article concludes: “As an organizing principle for political action, vulnerability to weather and climate offers everything that global warming does not: a clear, uncontroversial story rooted in concrete human experience, observable in the present, and definable in terms of unambiguous and widely shared human values, such as the fundamental rights to a secure shelter, a safe community, and a sustainable environment.”

A modest proposal

The president should consider a strategy that couples policies for making society more resilient to natural hazards with policies for addressing climate change: to build better observational networks, improve our understanding of climate controls and impacts, and take “no regrets” approaches to reducing greenhouse gases. Many links already exist. Moreover, much of what we know about recent climate variability is because, 100 years ago, we set up hazard-observing networks and began to archive the data. The natural hazard mission provides a continuing stream of benefits and, simultaneously, builds a needed climate record.
A presidential policy initiative that includes all of these components promises progress at a time when current approaches to addressing climate change are at a standstill. And by addressing vulnerability, this policy could also bring us closer to that most universal of goals: help those who need it most.

Applegate directs the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program and is editor of Geotimes.

“Breaking the Global-Warming Gridlock” by Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke appeared in the July 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and is on the Web at

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