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Winning the climate debate by adapting

It is time to reframe the climate change debate. Inadvertently, climate and environmental scientists have created an intellectual ecosystem that has created opportunities for contrarians like Lord Monckton…

We’re facing up to fire, flood and environmental devastation - let’s refocus our approach. thesaradarling/Flickr

It is time to reframe the climate change debate. Inadvertently, climate and environmental scientists have created an intellectual ecosystem that has created opportunities for contrarians like Lord Monckton, who have no scientific expertise, to thrive.

In the broader society this endless debate has resulted in a false binary: whether you “believe” or don’t “believe” in climate change, or more formally, “anthropogenic induced climate change”. Too much effort by scientists has been wasted on attempts to persuade the public to think like scientists or embrace the scientific method. Large swathes of the general public will never think like scientists (you need only look at the persistence of astrology columns in newspapers to see this).

Nasty fights have been spawned, fuelled by the oxygen of the blogosphere. They have an almost theocratic edge about whose interpretations of a particular religion is doctrinally “correct”. Media coverage of the climate wars has become like celebrity gossip, but not as titillating. This is a distraction from the work that needs to be done to tackle “here and now” issues like reducing the impact of bushfires, flood and cyclones, conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems.

Climate disasters have substantial social and economic costs. The need to reduce the impact of disasters is something on which we can, I hope, all agree. These occur regardless of whether current extreme events, like bushfires, are within or outside the “natural range of historical variability”. Climate change is an additional effect, not the sole cause.

The current political response to disasters is to “rebuild”, with little evidence of any adaptation. For instance, genuine adaptation to bushfire demands retrofitting structures to make them more fire-proof, planned staged retreat from areas at high risk of severe bushfire and in some cases building appropriately designed bunkers to provide shelter from fire-storms. More effective fuel management is required on the interface between urban and bushland areas. Equivalent engineering and planning responses are required to reduce the impact of floods, storms and coastal erosion.

More levies, such as those imposed following the Brisbane flood, are required to cover the full cost of government expenditure in disaster response and recovery. Such levies, coupled with higher insurance fees, can send a powerful price signal of the cost of these disasters to the broader community. As disasters rise in step with climate change this price signal is possibly more effective than the current “carbon tax” that has been designed to be invisible to most tax payers.

Such “bottom up” adaptive responses to climate change could have several enduring outcomes. Environmental policy debates can move on from arguing abstractions about plausible future scenarios to addressing specific issues that are consequential for citizen’s lives. And adaptation will build a larger constituency of interest in the environmental issues. This will result in a greater interest in how resources are invested to tackle these problems.

The social, environmental and economic disruption of effectively adapting to climate variability will, I suspect, ultimately result in a hunger amongst the public and politicians for scientists' discoveries on the role of anthropogenic climate change in environmental variability. Satisfying that hunger with knowledge about climate change effects will make possible futures much more real and make substantial social and economic changes more acceptable.

As the magnitude of the problems dawn on people I imagine more of us will voluntarily make investments to mitigate our own environmental footprint. Ultimately, I think the ballooning costs of adaptation will lead to the inescapable conclusion for the great majority of people that top down control, through substantial taxation of greenhouse gas pollution, is cost effective and should be mandatory.

My argument is simply inverting the current debate from a fixation on “top down” regulation to avoid, or mitigate climate change, to greater emphasis on “bottom up” adaptation to climate change. A sole reliance on centralised mitigation made perfect sense in the 1990s, when we had time to dodge the bullet of climate change. It is too late now and we need to adapt. And, perversely the first adaptive step is to give up on the endless climate change debate and focus on surviving climate change.

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  1. Spiro Vlachos

    AL

    "Environmental policy debates can move on from arguing abstractions about plausible future scenarios to addressing specific issues that are consequential for citizen’s lives."

    Bottom up seems like a rational course of action since how are we supposed to worry or do anything about something of which we have no control. We should focus on specific issues of which we can make an impact.

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Spiro Vlachos

      The enthusiasm of climate science deniers like Spiro for adaption does illustrate the central political problem with this approach.

      It lets the fossil fuel companies off the hook.

      This is why many climate cranks support Lomborg and the luke-warmers - because they propose delaying any carbon mitigation off into the distant future.

      A radical organisation like the World Bank suggests that "business as usual" will result in a world where "there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degree warmer world is possible”.
      https://theconversation.edu.au/world-bank-calls-for-greater-climate-preparedness-in-australia-planning-unravels-10807

      We need to prepare for a hotter world as well as supporting mitigation policies.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      I'm not too sure that we should put fossil fuel companies 'on the hook', other than denying them tax-deductibility for their funding of the likes of Monckton and the Heartland Institute.

      I agree with Prof Bowman that a bottom-up approach would be more effective, and far more beneficial, than the Clean Energy Future framework that our political superiors have handed down from on high.

      [As you may be aware (:-)),] my preferred bottom-up approach is to simply replacing some of our existing taxes with a consumption tax on fossil fuel. This would

      1) be immediately visible to ordinary voters (consumers)
      2) would give the fossil fuel companies an incentive to develop non-fossil fuels

      as well as all the other benefits I've lauded in other Conversations.

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    3. Spiro Vlachos

      AL

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Thanks for divulging the devastating impact of what is your concern, but let me remind you and other readers that your ilk proposes a course of action as a solution that not even you yourself would take.

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    4. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Great line Mr Hansen, 'It lets the fossil fuel companies off the hook.'

      As you know, the fuel companies only manufacture the fuel, we use it. And most interestingly, many who firmly believe in climate change and the need to stop burning fossil fuel use JetA1 fuel to fly for their own pleasure to Europe and beyond.

      I have raised this hypocrisy many times on The Conversation only to be mocked and laughed at, but never once has anybody bothered to ethically justify their hypocritical use of JetA1…

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  2. Mark King

    Senior Lecturer, Psychology and Counselling and Researcher, CARRSQ at Queensland University of Technology

    The mechanisms for encouraging bottom-up adaptation themselves depend on centralised systems such as taxation incentives. Because climate is an externality it is easy for individuals to make choices that benefit their own situation but not the "commonwealth", so there is still an important role for top-down processes to foster adaptation.

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    1. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Mark King

      Yes, you still need people in the know to create the awareness and advantages. But the ownership and drive of the change, the direction it takes, has to come from the people involved.

      In this manner you get multifaceted approaches and often quite innovative responses.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark King

      With respect, Dr King, I don't see anything intrinsically centralising about taxation systems; perhaps this is because I'm not an anarchist per se.

      Individuals will always optimise their own tax situations, so the idea might be to design a tax system that doesn't encourage self-defeating behaviour. I'd suggest the following as preferable to the top-down "Clean Energy Futures" approach favoured by the present Federal government.

      1. Start cutting taxes.
      2. Make up the revenue shortfall with a consumption tax on fossil fuel.
      3. Cut more taxes, and continue making up the revenue shortfall by increasing the rate of the fossil fuel consumtion tax.
      4. Continue with step 3 until fossil fuel use is decreased to the extent required.
      5. Continue with step 3 a bit more, as the need to cut fossil fuel use even more is confirmed by scientific observation.

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    3. Peter Lang

      Retired geologist and engineer

      In reply to Mark King

      >"The mechanisms for encouraging bottom-up adaptation themselves depend on centralised systems such as taxation incentives."

      That is the policy approach that been pushed at the UN climate conferences and has failed for 20 years. It couldn't be more obvious it will never work.

      Top down, command and control policies are exactly the opposite of what will succeed.

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    4. Mark King

      Senior Lecturer, Psychology and Counselling and Researcher, CARRSQ at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Peter Lang

      I'm not saying that there should be top-down instead of bottom-up, but that bottom-up is only likely to succeed with top-down facilitation. There is too much personal benefit in not adapting, which is just another expression of the commons dilemma.

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  3. Rob Law

    Researcher in carbon policy and science at University of Melbourne

    Thanks David.
    This approach you are suggesting seems to be the preferred approach of Liberal governments around the country, and I suspect Victoria will be a good test case to see what the implications are of focussing on adaptation and 'bottom up approaches' in isolation. The Vic Coalition government has decided to focus strongly on adaptation policy over mitigation (arguing all mitigation is now covered by the Federal Carbon tax), but I would suggest this is due more to the view that adaptation…

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  4. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    This bushfire thingy - I understand it only became a problem in Australia in the last decade - yes?

    As a "luke [sky]warmer" I am relaxed about what mitigating measures are put in place. I do want to put my marker down firmly as a sceptic - if only so if proved correct in future and I can point to how long I held this position.
    The other thing I want is for climate scientists to make predictions and then be held to account to their predictions - not to make some airy-fairy admission yes temperatures haven't risen for the last 17 years but its all too difficult for us to model - while in other contexts being only too happy to publish graphs with steeply rising curves.

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Skeptic, lukewarmer? You are confusing yourself Sean. Let me clear it up for you. Your self-identification as "Science Denier" is much more accurate.

      Every year real climate scientists check their models against observations.The fact that you deny their science does not mean it does not happen.

      http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2013/02/2012-updates-to-model-observation-comparions/

      Or check Skeptical Science for regular model to observation discussions including Hansen's 1988 projections.
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/Hansen-1988-prediction-advanced.htm

      Svante Arrhenius (b 1859) did detailed calculations on the effect of CO2 on climate. He expected CO2 doubling to take about 3000 years. He was wrong. Does the fact that he was wrong invalidate modern climate science? The answer depends on whether you are interested in understanding the science or denying the science.

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    2. Tim Scanlon

      Debunker

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I love the 17 year myth, it's like a group of parrots have taught each other to talk.

      The peer reviewed literature shows global warming trends ranging from 0.014 to 0.018 K yr−1.
      http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/6/4/044022
      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7198/abs/nature07080.html
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009JD012105/abstract
      http://www.aussmc.org/documents/waiting-for-global-cooling.pdf

      There’s a strong warming trend in both GISTEMP and HadCRU data sets, with GISTEMP data rising at 0.018 +/- 0.003 deg.C/yr, HadCRU at 0.019 +/- 0.003 deg.C/yr. Even if we use your cherry picked data point of 1998 as a starting point GISTEMP indicates warming at a rate of 0.028 +/- 0.019 deg.C/yr, HadCRU indicates 0.018 +/- 0.016 deg.C/yr. http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

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    3. In reply to Mike Hansen

      Comment removed by moderator.

    4. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Oh my, that was a revealing deletion. Your site, your prerogative.

      My lips are sealed..

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  5. Tim Scanlon

    Debunker

    But top down is such an encouraging way to run a country or business.

    I agree completely. Action has to be driven by the people, but those in power have to be listening. There has to be ownership of change for it to work, but it shouldn't be hampered by bureaucracy and idiocy at higher levels.

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Any of you lot heard of hippies? Nah.
      Well the counterculture was seemingly an antidote to unsustainable over consumption of which anthropogenic climate change is just one part.
      The counter-counterculture arose in opposition to such heresy in the church of Mammon and proceeded to demonise all this "look afer the planet" stuff.
      Apparently these heretical "Hippies" pioneered sustainable practices such as using solar panels, windmills, etc which have now become mainstream almost four decades later.
      Sorry, we should be looking for top downmeasures, shouldn't we.
      Delivered by our intellectual superiors in the proper order of things, right?

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  6. Liam J

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Makes sense to me. Adaptation is needed and can show immediate benefits, lets get on with it. The need is increasingly obvious to all and preparation and risk minimisation is the responsible conservative thing to do.

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  7. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Strangely, the "catastrophists" of old, such as the one who built the ark by way of adaptation, always claimed that the "sinners" had brought down disaster upon themselves; Anthropogenic disasters.
    So how come the present antagonists to the scientific message of anthropogenic climate change deny that any sinners have been responsible at all?
    Should have been right up their alley surely?
    Instead Gaia worshipping "greenies" have been finding the sinners.
    So is all this religious, anti-science, contrarianism just sour grapes on the part of conservative religionists, who failed to get in first on the "find the sinner" front?
    As the article writer indicates, time to leave all this religiosity behind and concentrate on using science to adapt to and survive climate change.
    And leave the squabbling religionists to their ultimate reward for ignoring reality; extinction.

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  8. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    >"Inadvertently, climate and environmental scientists have created an intellectual ecosystem that has created opportunities for contrarians like Lord Monckton, who have no scientific expertise, to thrive."

    Monkton is not a scientist and doesn't claim to be. What he is, is a past senior policy adviser to government. He can do the rational analysis needed and explain it clearly. He understands what is important for developing, implementing and maintaining rational policies. That is something scientists have negligible about. They form strong opinions (beliefs, group think, heard mentality) about policies that involve disciplines that are outside their areas of expertise.

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Peter Lang

      With you, Peter, retired geologist, being the exception to your last sentence, of course!
      Though it must be recognised that geologists, in general, have much to complain of in having their discipline seemingly discarded by the rash of new "Climate science" specialists.
      Anyone who has ever read a geology text will recognise this immediately in the failure to refer to established scientific evidence by the "specialists", who seem intent on carving out heir own exclusive territories at the expense…

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  9. Peter Lang

    Retired geologist and engineer

    >My argument is simply inverting the current debate from a fixation on “top down” regulation to avoid, or mitigate climate change, to greater emphasis on “bottom up” adaptation to climate change. A sole reliance on centralised mitigation made perfect sense in the 1990s, when we had time to dodge the bullet of climate change."

    Good to hear you advocate a move away from the solutions demanded by socialist's, so called 'Progressives, Left ideologues. It's long past time advocacy for top down, command…

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  10. Colin Creighton

    Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

    Totally agree on the need for more bottom up action. Imagine if the entire climate debate had been taken to the community with two basic premises -
    1 - we don't waste water so why waste energy?
    2 - we don't pollute water so why pollute the atmosphere?
    I suggest the "doom and gloom" of conservation advocates was replicated too much by both public policy and science. The legacy is community confusion and poor public policy both at the international level [eg Kyoto ] and the Australian level [our current legislation and focus on minuscule opportunities such as soil carbon from agricultural landscapes]. Recovery from community confusion and poor policy will alas be long and difficult.

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  11. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    There's no point persuading governments to focus on adaptation (rather than mitigation), because that's what they all want to do anyway and that's where most government policy and actions are automatically heading.

    Think about it: Any mitigation action a government undertakes returns no direct dividend to its immediate constituency, owing to the classic 'tragedy-of-the-commons' dilemma that climate change poses. In terms of investment of public resources, mitigation actions serve the global population…

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  12. Tim Niven
    Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Student at Tzu Chi University

    Thanks for the article, David. There's plenty of people not waiting for some politician to solve our problems (what's that saying, politics being too important to be left to politicians?).

    For those of us in Sydney, there's a forum on building community renewable energy tonight - see description at the link below:

    http://empoweringourcommunity.doattend.com.

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