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Triaging Climate

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We are well past the point of saving the planet in any way that keeps much of its ecological integrity or species. We are at the point that we can, at best, triage the climate to make things as least bad as possible.

Triaging climate change means placing consequences into different buckets. Here, we propose three.

The first bucket represents impacts that can be avoided or managed with minimal or no interventions. For example, assessments of how climate change will affect U.S. hydropower indicate that this sector can absorb the impacts without a need for costly interventions.

The second bucket is for impacts that are probably unavoidable despite all best efforts. Consider polar bears, which rely on sea ice as a platform to reach their prey. Efforts to reduce emissions can help sustain polar bears, but there are few ways to help them adapt. Protecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or the Brazilian Amazon poses similar challenges.

The third bucket represents impacts for which practical and effective actions can be taken to reduce risk. For example, cities such as Phoenix, Chicago and Philadelphia have been investing for years in extreme heat warning systems and emergency response strategies to reduce risks to public health. There are a variety of options for making agriculture more resilient, from precision agriculture to biotechnology to no-till farming. And large investments in infrastructure and demand management strategies have historically helped supply water to otherwise scarce regions and reduce flood risk.

In each of these cases, the challenge is aligning what’s technically feasible with society’s willingness to pay.

Other experts have called for climate change triage in contexts such as managing sea level rise and flood risk and conserving ecosystems. But so far, this approach has not made inroads into adaptation policy.

How can societies enable triage-based planning? One key step is to invest in valuing assets that are at risk. Placing a value on assets exchanged in economic markets, such as agriculture, is relatively straightforward. For example, RAND and Louisiana State University have estimated the costs of coastal land loss in Louisiana owing to property loss, increased storm damage, and loss of wetland habitat that supports commercial fisheries.

Valuing non-market assets, such as cultural resources, is more challenging but not impossible. When North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras lighthouse was in danger of collapsing into the sea, heroic efforts were taken to move it further inland because of its historic and cultural significance. Similarly, Congress makes judgments on behalf of the American people regarding the value of historic and cultural resources when it enacts legislation to add them to the U.S. national park system.

The next step is identifying adaptation strategies that have a reasonable chance of reducing risks. RAND’s support for the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan included an analysis of $50 billion in ecosystem restoration and coastal protection projects that ranked the benefits those projects would generate in terms of avoided damages.

This approach reflects the so-called “resilience dividend” – a “bonus” that comes from investing in more climate-resilient communities. For example, a recent report from the National Institute of Building Sciences estimated that every dollar invested in federal disaster mitigation programs – enhancing building codes, subsidizing hurricane shutters or acquiring flood-prone houses – saves society $6. Nevertheless, there are limits to the level of climate change that any investment can address.

The whole piece is well worth your time. How far are we behind on this? I love the idea of a Green New Deal, but it is barely a drop in the bucket of what is actually required, and that’s assuming we hand wave away the politics behind getting even that enacted. This is by far the most depressing thing in 21st century life and it is going to get far, far worse. I really don’t see how people make the choice to have children, since their lives are going to significantly worse than yours, unless you are very rich and can save them from the realities of the world.

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