Drawing heavily from physicist Steven Koonin’s recent book – Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters – my last column looked at some of the challenges involved in getting to global carbon-free by mid-century. Koonin actually calls it “a practical impossibility.”
Now let’s talk about contingency planning. If carbon reduction/elimination is our Plan A, what’s Plan B?
To quote from Koonin’s penultimate chapter: “We understand the importance of contingency planning in other areas of our lives – it’s why we buy insurance, why we don’t counsel students to apply to only one college, and so on.”
So if climate change truly is an impending catastrophe, it’d be grossly irresponsible to put all the eggs in one basket and have no contingency plan.
Koonin separates contingency activity into two categories. One is geoengineering, which refers to direct technical intervention to counter the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. The other is adapting to climate change by mitigating its negative implications.
As a general concept, the idea of controlling the weather has been around for a long time. Think of cloud-seeding as an example. And in the context of the modern climate change conundrum, there are two relevant approaches.
Solar radiation management (SRM) aims to “make the earth a bit more reflective (increase its albedo) so that it absorbs a bit less energy from the sun.”
Technically, neither approach is a blank slate, meaning we have a semi-reasonable idea of how to go about them. But there are serious concerns and drawbacks.
SRM’s biggest issue has to do with possible collateral effects and unanticipated consequences. An extra complication is that negative effects – if any – wouldn’t necessarily impact all geographies to the same extent.
CDR’s huge challenge would be around scale and cost. And the question of where to sequester the retrieved carbon would be particularly thorny.
While Koonin prefers to keep all options on the table, he believes that adaptation is the most feasible Plan B. Further, he thinks we’re going to be pushed that way whether we like it or not.
This is how he puts it: “Given the enormous challenges of effectively reducing human emissions, and the various concerns that make geoengineering likely to be deployed only in extremis, it seems all but certain that our efforts to reduce emissions will be complemented, if not overshadowed, by adaptation to a changing climate.”
Humans have been adapting to climate change for millennia, often without any idea of what might be causing it. If climate change prognostications are right, we at least have the advantage of being forewarned and thus able to get a head start.
There’s also the matter of proportionality. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing from the get-go. For example, barriers to protect threatened coastlines from rising seas can be built incrementally. The Dutch have been successfully improving their dikes for centuries.
And adaptation has another thing going for it. It can be done independently of global consensus and commitment. Indeed, it can even be done at the subnational level.
The difficulty of getting to carbon-free goes beyond the formidable technical and economic challenges. It also depends on getting all countries on board. It’s not enough for Canada, the United States and Europe to sign up and deliver. Everyone, the developing world included, has to do the same.
We’re not talking about promises, speeches or inspirational media vignettes. That’s the easy part.
Rather, we’re talking about wrenching decisions in a world where large numbers of people are still energy-deprived. And prohibiting the use of fossil fuels denies them access to the most affordable and reliable energy source.
Adaptation, on the other hand, can be pursued without the need for global consensus. Countries, or even subnational regions, can do it. Coastal areas at risk of rising sea levels can build protective barriers without having to negotiate with inland areas that don’t perceive the same threat.
There are those, however, who’ll worry that adding an adaptation strategy to the mix might distract people from emission reductions and even facilitate the ongoing use of fossil fuels. In their reckoning, it’s better to burn all boats and bridges so that carbon-free, regardless of cost or even practicality, is the only option.
The rest of us, though, might beg to differ.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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