In praise of adaptation

Reader Taust contributed to the Great Shave Appeal, asking in return for 250 words in praise of adaptation to global warming. This isn’t as hard as it might seem since a large part of my research work is focused on exactly this issue. The only problem is that I find I have to write more than 250 words. Anyway, here is the promised post.

The responses to global climate change have been characterized as ‘mitigate, adapt, or suffer’ ( Weber 2007). Whatever level of mitigation takes place for the world as a whole, and whatever our contribution, global warming is bound to continue for decades to come, probably at rates faster than we have observed so far. So, for any given level of mitigation, the choice comes down to ‘adapt or suffer’.

A lot of adaptation will take place as a result of individual decisions. Since my area of research is water use in the Murray-Darling Basin, I’ll use this example to illustrate the point.

It is still unclear whether the drying trend observed in much of Australia over the last decade or more is the result of global change or of some unexplained multi-decade fluctuation in our local climate. It is clear, however, that the drought has been exacerbated by higher evaporation rates caused by global warming. Regardless of the precise mixture of causes, it no longer makes sense for farmers and policymakers to plan on the basis of the relatively wet conditions experienced between about 1950 and 1990, or even on distributions based on the historical record that goes back to the late 19th century. Rather, prudence requires polciies that can deal with a hotter, drier climate.

This shouldn’t mean heavy-handed attempts to demonise particular crops such as rice and cotton. But it does mean that the political equilibrium of the past, in which irrigation policy was driven by the patronage-based politics of the National Party, can no longer be sustained. All water users must face an effective price that reflects the full social cost of water use, noting that this cost will vary from season to season. To make this happen, governments need to enter the water market and buy irrigation rights back from farmers to deliver sustainable environmental flows and adequate water for urban users.

How will this affect farmers? For those who were already planning on retiring, or moving out of irrigated agriculture, a higher price for their water rights will be an unalloyed benefit. Others will face the necessity of economising on water, either by increasing the physical efficiency of their systems or by changing their production patterns.

In particular, successful adaptation to climate change will require flexibility. With more frequent and prolonged drought, access to reliable high-security water will become more difficult and expensive, and justifiable only for high-value horticultural crops. Farmers who can take advantage of high flow years, while riding out years when no irrigation water is available, will be better placed to prosper in the new environment.

20 thoughts on “In praise of adaptation

  1. Putting a flexible price on water which adjusts according to supply and demand dynamics has the merit of being something we should be doing regardless of AGW. It is certainly something that should happen in the urban setting. Whilst I can understand reservations about privatising the pipes that deliver water to our homes there seems to me to plenty of good reason to privatise all the water sources and for the government owned ditributor to buy the water from competing suppliers in an otherwise open market and onsell it to consumers on a cost plus basis.

    If the market based price of urban water was higher then I might build a rainwater tank under the varanda or the coal fired power stations outside Brisbane might take a production holiday and use less of Brisbanes drinking water in cooling towers. It makes no sence to have a ridgid regulated price that is at times too low and at times too high.

  2. To be clear about the exercise, I have to be sincere in what I write. Obviously, it would be no trouble for me to spin out any number of words in support of views I don’t agree with. My aim is to find points of agreement on which I can write.

  3. JQ, there is a non sequitur in any such argument whenever an expression like “governments must” appears. There must be institutional arrangements, but sliding into governmental action not only imposes an unnecessary choice of – often unsuitable – means – but also risks discounting prior arrangements. That is, some people have already “bought” their water rights, and changing the rules on them by government fiat is then tantamount to expropriation.

  4. John.
    you have discharged your obligation with panache and rationality.

    When I look around at the political response to climate change I mostly see marginal seat vote capturing projects and little real ‘headline’ effort in preparing for adaptation.
    All the celebrity views (so necessary to influencing the behaviour of the air -head generation) are on managing CO2 discharge.

    You mention that a lot of your work is on adaptation. Do you have a more advantageous viewpoint that would lead to an expectation that political support will be gathered for adaptation?

    Is there a social democratic policy position on preparing Australia for adaptation?

  5. Re #3 Which leads to the question….Are you always sincere when you are not getting cash for comments(for a good cause of course)
    It sounds as if adaption(or preparedness) is a much better option than mitigation

  6. I wouldn’t stop at demonising rice and cotton growers. I would also demonise the Qld. power stations that Terje refers to, the bottled water company which has been given cheap Victorian drinking water, and the BHP-Billiton proposal to increase production at Olympic Dam. In fact, I would demonise all those whose sole idea about water management is to screw urban consumers for the benefit of rural and manufacturing/mining consumers. Is that all that “adaptation” amounts to?

  7. Re #6: Are you kidding? “Adaptation is a much better option than mitigation”?!

    Pitting mitigation against preparedness as if you can only choose one is unwise and dangerous. Do you really think the costs of adaptation will be less than the costs of mitigation? Check the projected figures for GDP loss if we DON’T mitigate.

    It’s like saying “It sounds like a cure is a much better option than prevention!” Personally, I’d pay not to get sick in the first place.

  8. Anna.
    what probability would you place on the world mitigating its total carbon emissions from today’s total emission levels by, say. 1/3 over the next 50 years.

    Remember global warning was first detected in the world temperature signature in the 1930’s and it took the scientists some 50 years to agree that it was real.

    Now we are dependent upon politicians agreeing to defer living standards now for living standards for others in the future.

    Australia can adapt on its own ie we can minimise the effects on our people and if we choose minimise the effects on others. Nothing we do will effect the probability of mitigation happening.

  9. I’ve always though it is a no brainer that the best approach includes adaption, but that is adaption combined with serious mitgation. If like some here the story is well we haven’t a hope to mitigate so lets put all our eggs in the adaption basket, you might as well cut your own throat.

    Keep pumping that Co2 and hope it creates enough wealth to pay for adaption apart from being morally bankrupt assumes you will have a world economy in which the 1st world can bunker down while the rest of the world go to hell. Fat Chance!

  10. Anna Think about what mitigation means. If you pick a figure of 30% reduction, it means 2 out of 6 rooms in your house have to be shut down completely, 3 out of 10 car trips not taken,and so on. Reduction of energy use in a growing economy is very difficult. I can’t see anybody doing it voluntarily and I can’t see a government mandating it either.

    And what if co2 is not the culprit, or only part of the cause.All that time and money spent on mitigation and you still have to adapt.

  11. Chrisl, you’re assuming a fixed-proportions technology. You could instead, run all 6 rooms with more efficient lightbulbs, switch to a more fuel-efficient car and so on.

    It amazes me how little faith most Kyoto critics have in the creativity of market processes. Once carbon emissions are priced, all sorts of options will emerge.

  12. Once carbon emissions are priced, all sorts of options will emerge-many of them negative.
    Voters will not wear an increase in energy price to the degree that it will make a difference.
    Especially if they can’t see a link between them using less energy and a drop in global temperature.
    People want more energy, not less

  13. chrisl – surely people want products, services and standard of living, not energy. If they wanted energy profligacy for its own sake, sales of arc lamps and bar heaters would be skyrocketing, and sales of home insulation plummeting. There are plenty of low hanging fruit technologies available right now that provide the same or better service for a lower energy cost, as Prof Q points out. It is surely unsurprising that they are being enthusiastically taken up by the people you claim want more energy. Your claim that voters won’t wear an increase in energy price requires some empirical support. The public has already moved a long way in understanding what needs to be done – here in south-east Queensland it was the received wisdom only a few months ago that the voters would never accept water recycling. Now the idea has overwhelming support. It’s this sense of having lost both the argument and public support, I’d suggest, that so enrages the likes of Devine, Bolt, and perhaps your good self.

  14. Chrisl all it took was a poll and hot weekend to change Downer’s mind – ref The Insiders- I’m sure a couple more Katrina’s in the states and a few here will change that view. Maybe even having a nuclear reactor in the backyard won’t seem so bad , at least that what Howard hopes.

  15. Hal9000 people want products, services and standard of living and these things require energy. A person very close to me has gone from a house with no electricity to an eleven square house with 4 power points to a 46 square house with swimming pool. To him that is progress and he’s not going back.
    Your argument that people will accept recycled water when there is no fresh water is not the same as people accepting less energy use when there is plenty.

  16. And when the people who preach loudest (eg Gore, Hollywood celebs, Eurocrats) actually give up their first-class international travel, private jets, huge houses and second and third homes, maybe the rest of us plebs will be inclined to listen to them.

  17. Hal 9000 ( This mission is too important to allow you to jeopardise it)
    Last night on the ABC program ” A Sameness of Opinion” a panelist stated that it would take only 2 years to replace all the light globes in Australia, thus saving 1% of emissions.That is the low-hanging fruit taken care of . Only 58 years to go to the 30% target.

  18. yes because that is the only thing that anyone interested in greenhouse will be doing in Australia over the next two years – changing light bulbs.

    Modern cars with all of the functionality of the current Toorak tractors on the road will change fuel efficiency from 12 – 14 l/100km towards 5-6l/100km.

    Five and six star houses cut heating and cooling bills by a half. Even better with commercial buildings.

    Several promising solar cell technologies look like making this cost competitive in many more situations than currently.

    Whoops, we’re already getting towards 30%, and that’s without getting starry eyed.

    My family use well less than half the average electricity of a family our size, and we’re not hair shirt wearing tofu eaters, we just do the simple obvious bloody stuff like insulating our house, buying efficient appliances and turning them off at the switch. Not hard at all.

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