This Weekend’s News: Cancun and Climate Adaptation

International climate change negotiators are in Cancun, Mexico today for the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. There has been quiet speculation about what to expect from Cancun, with markedly less attention drawn to the conference than last year’s Copenhagen Conference, in part because organizers for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have been trying to manage expectations better by minimizing the prospects that international negotiators will settle on a binding treaty to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read a piece Christine and I wrote for World Politics Review outlining what we think you should watch for in Cancun this week, here. [Subscription required]) Nevertheless, there are some worthy climate change-related news items from this past weekend that may directly or indirectly inform your thinking about what to expect from Cancun.

To begin, The New York Times ran a story on Friday on efforts in Norfolk, Virginia to adapt to rising sea level. Leslie Kaufman, reporting for The Times, writes:

As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming. But Norfolk is worse off. Situated just west of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, it is bordered on three sides by water, including several rivers, like the Lafayette, that are actually long tidal streams that feed into the bay and eventually the ocean. Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.

As Kaufman reports, residents of the Larchmont Neighborhood in Norfolk have already started to adapt to sea level rise, successfully lobbying the local government to invest 1.25 million dollars to raise a small stretch of street by 18 inches and to change the angle of the storm drains so that water does not backup into the street. Yet, as Kaufman notes, “it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion.” Indeed, “In the short run, the city’s goal is just to pick its flood-mitigation projects more strategically,” Kaufman reports, rather than commit resources to these piecemeal projects. 

Yet, to end on a not-so-sanguine note, Kaufman points out that there are skeptics who wonder if much of anything can be done to really hedge against rising seas. “The fact is that there is not enough engineering to go around to mitigate the rising sea,” said Jim Schultz, a scientist and resident who spoke with Kaufman. “For us, it is the bitter reality of trying to live in a world that is getting warmer and wetter.”

After reading this report, I wondered what affect rising seas could have on the Norfolk area’s Naval installations and how the Navy is planning to adapt. Recall from a report we published in April, Broadening Horizons: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces, sea level rise has been of particular interest and concern to the U.S. Navy, given that many of its installations are in low-lying areas that could become inundated by sea level rise or more severe storm surges. “One of the investments that we are really going to have to think about in the next few decades is the impact of sea-level rise on the Navy’s infrastructure,” said Rear Admiral David Titley, the Oceanographer of the Navy and the director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, during a teleconference in June.  While I have not seen a base-by-base assessment from the Navy on how climate change could affect each of its bases, I would be curious to see if the Navy has modeled projected impacts against its installations in Norfolk and are adapting to effects such as sea level rise, given that the Naval installations and personnel in and around Norfolk support the operational readiness for much of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet

Building on this adaptation theme, it was interesting to read this week’s issue of The Economist which had a front cover story on climate adaptation: “How to Live With Climate Change.” Getting to the crux of this cover story was instructive for understanding what areas policymakers may consider action on, either during Cancun or back at home in their own states:

Beyond encouraging climate-friendly development, governments need to take some focused measures in three areas: infrastructure, migration and food. The Dutch, who have centuries of experience of protecting themselves against high water, are already working out how to adapt and build infrastructure to minimise the risks of flooding as sea levels rise and the rain-fed Rhine grows friskier. Elsewhere, politicians need to assess the vulnerability of their cities to changes in peak temperatures, in rainfall, in severe-storm frequency and in sea level, and act accordingly. As life gets harder in vulnerable places, people will need to migrate both between and within countries. Rich people can help make life easier for poor ones by allowing larger numbers across their borders. Within rich countries, governments should stop subsidising insurance in vulnerable areas—such as the Florida coastline—and thus stimulating development there. People need to be encouraged to migrate away from vulnerable areas, not into them. Food security will become a crucial issue. Drought-resistant seeds are needed; and, given that the farmers least able to pay will require the hardiest varieties, seed companies’ efforts should be supplemented by state-funded research.

As The Economist sometimes likes to have several stories build off their leader, there was a second story on climate adaptation inside the magazine worth reading in full: “Adapting to Climate Change: Facing the Consequences.” But there’s an interesting part of this report where the authors try to understand the hesitation to move previous conversations about climate change from merely just mitigation to include more discussion about adaptation, and why adaptation is now more than ever front and center.

So why has there been hesitation to discuss adaptation? According to The Economist, it is an interesting blend of the fact that many adaptation efforts are done privately (i.e., by individuals), such as moving houses, improving water management and sowing different seeds, and that some adaptation efforts have blurry distinctions between mitigation and impact:

Some means of adaptation can also act as mitigation; a farming technique which helps soil store moisture better may well help it store carbon too. Some forms of adaptation will be hard to distinguish from the sort of impact you would rather avoid. Mass migration is a good way of adapting if the alternative is sitting still and starving; to people who live where the migrants turn up it may look awfully like an unwelcome impact.

Then there is the fact that some advocates in favor of curbing greenhouse gas emissions worry that discussions about adaptation could make governments less motivated to adopt mitigation schemes, or that governments might give up on mitigation all together.

Whatever the reason, The Economist makes clear that adaptation efforts have gained a foothold in the climate debate out of necessity. First, international climate mitigation efforts are deadlocked. The authors colorfully write that: “Talking about adaptation was for many years like farting at the dinner table, says an academic who has worked on adaptation over the past decade. Now that the world’s appetite for emissions reduction has been revealed to be chronically weak, putting people off dinner is less of a problem.” Second, the world can no longer afford not to be prepared to adapt to climate change:

Events such as this year’s devastating floods in Pakistan make it obvious that the world has not adapted to the climate it already has, be it man-made or natural. Even if the climate were not changing, there would be two reasons to worry about its capacity to do more harm than before. One is that it varies a lot naturally and the period over which there are good global climate records is short compared with the timescale on which some of that variability plays out. People thus may be ignoring the worst that today’s climate can do, let alone tomorrow’s. The other is that more lives, livelihoods and property are at risk, even if hazards do not change, as a result of economic development, population growth and migration to coasts and floodplains.

Indeed, there is a lot to consider going into this week’s Cancun Conference. With very low expectations that there will be a binding international treaty coming from this week’s meeting, climate change negotiations are expected to instead focus on smaller, piecemeal agreements on funding for climate mitigation and adaptation and programs such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). Adaptation is going to be a particular focus for policymakers, and it will be interesting to watch what they come up with.

This Week’s Events

Today at 12: 30 PM, Energy Secretary Steven Chu will be at the National Press Club to discuss U.S. energy policy.  Then on Wednesday at 9 AM, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change will host an event at the National Press Club. On Thursday, head to the Wilson Center at 9 AM for Here Comes the Sun (and the Wind, Water, and Biogas): Opportunities and Challenges for U.S.-China Renewable Energy Collaboration. Have a great week everyone!