I’ve been trying (and maybe failing) to mainly discuss science, and to not delve too much into the specifics of climate policy. However, I have found it interesting that the rhetoric associated with climate policy appears to be changing somewhat. There seem to be more and more people – some of whom are surprising – arguing that we should be doing something. The rather odd thing about their argument is that they appear to be saying “those who’ve been campaigning for us to do something should stop doing this as it’s preventing us from doing something”. I don’t fully understand what’s going on, but I think part is related to a view by some that adaptation is the only way forward, coupled with a view that “the other side” is arguing for mitigation-only policies.
It’s my sense that there is an element of strawman and confusion about the arguments some are making. What I think some don’t recognise – or are unwilling to recognise – is that there is a lot of inertia in the climate system. There is virtually nothing we can do now to stop a certain amount of further warming. Even if we were to completely stop all carbon emissions (and I’m not suggesting we do) we would continue to warm for at least the next few decades, and would likely reach temperatures 0.5 to 1oC warmer than today. Given that mitigation will likely have very little effect in the short-term, I suspect most would therefore agree that an element of adaptation is unavoidable.
Given this inertia, however, it would seem that the real discussion is not really about the short-term impacts of climate change, but the medium to long-term impacts. If we decide that adaptation is the only policy we should follow for the moment, it essentially guarantees adaptation for the medium term. If we decide to do nothing about our carbon emissions and allow them to follow a BAU-like scenario, then any attempt to mitigate in the future is presumably much more difficult and it essentially guarantees continued adaptation. Arguing that adaptation is unavoidable, and is therefore all we should do, seems remarkably simplistic and appears to ignore that mitigation today is not about the short-term, but about the medium- to long-term.
So, I don’t know if I’ve written this as clearly as I would have liked. Even though I have my own views about this, I’m certainly not arguing here for one over the other. What I am trying to suggest, though, is that even though science can’t tell us what to do, it can tell us what questions to ask. Of course, there are many other questions one could ask and I’m not suggesting that what I’m illustrating here is the be all and end all of what we should be asking. One question, however, I would like to know the answer to is : is there any evidence that our current civilisation can continue as we might like, in a world that is more than 3oC warmer than today?
[Correction : I said in the post that there is nothing we can do to avoid further warming. That even if we stopped all emissions, we’d continue to warm. This – it seems – is not quite correct. According to this post by Steve Easterbrook, if we stopped all emissions the carbon cycle would reduce atmospheric CO2 at a rate that would essentially fix surface temperatures at today’s level. So, stopping all emissions would prevent further warming but, I imagine, that most would agree that this is somewhat unlikely to suddenly happen.]