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Why adaptation to climate change misses the mark

July 7, 2024

The climate change deniers frequently offer three contradictory responses as their position becomes more and more untenable in the face of mounting evidence, to wit: 1) There is no climate change, 2) it’ll be cheaper to adapt to climate change than prevent it, and 3) climate change is good for us—it will improve agriculture and open the Arctic to resource exploitation.

It is the second of these that I wish to discuss. There is no solid evidence that adapting to climate change will be cheaper, nor do the deniers provide a clear picture of what adapting would mean. In other words, they have no comprehensive plan; they are simply trying to muddy the waters to stall efforts at addressing climate change because the business interests behind them do not want to bear the costs.

The number one reason adaptation will be so costly is that climate change is a moving target. Sea level, temperature, and severe weather are not going to simply reach a new constant level to which we can adapt for the long run. On the contrary, these are all moving targets. Infrastructure improvements made today which are meant to last 20, 30, even 50 years are unlikely to address the ever-rising sea level, temperatures and severe weather in those periods. We have been consistently surprised by the pace of climate change. There is no reason to believe that the surprises will magically cease.

Take as an example Miami’s attempts to adapt to climate change. In the face of so-called “rain bombs”—a recent one dropped 9 inches in 11 hours in one location and 20 inches in another—and rampant sea-level rise, the city is having a hard time keeping up. Consider this: “[T]he National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts that south Florida could see almost 11 extra inches of ocean by 2040.”

Which leads us to a second reason adaptation will be costly: It doesn’t easily lend itself to cookie-cutter solutions. The specifics of any location and infrastructure will dictate what needs to be done and custom work always costs more. In Miami’s case sea-level rises compromise the area’s ability to drain water into the sea. The drainage system relies primarily on gravity to do that job. Gravity will be less effective as waters from drainage canals meet ever-rising sea waters that encroach further and further inland.

The article linked above states:

Miami Beach has spent about a decade raising roads, installing pumps and improving its infrastructure in a multimillion-dollar effort to buy time.
But the amount of rain that did fall last week [the “rain bomb” in June] is the sort of extreme-weather event that infrastructure planners don’t design for, if only because it would be too expensive to construct stormwater systems capable of moving that much water that quickly.

What the infrastructure planners are already telling us is that adaptation as a sole strategy will be too expensive and may always lag the ever-greater demands put on water and other infrastructure.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: climate adaptation