The Political Logic of Climate Change Adaptation - Prakash & Dolsak

University of Washington Political Science Professor Aseem Prakash and his colleague Nives Dolšak from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs share their thoughts on the political logic of climate change adaptation. For the full article read: Confronting the "China Excuse:" The Political Logic of Climate Change Adaption.

Confronting the "China Excuse:" The Political Logic of Climate Change Adaptation

In August, President Obama announced a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Critics characterized Obama’s Clean Power Plan as a “job killer” and offered the “China excuse” for opposing it. In December, the US enthusiastically signed on to the so-called Paris Pledge to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, and zero net emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century.

Yet, there is considerable opposition to such climate change initiatives, domestic or global. Critics wonder why the US should reduce emissions when China, the biggest current emitter of greenhouse gases, has not committed to mandatory reductions. This is a powerful argument in a period of economic crisis, growing income inequalities, and the fear that American jobs are being shipped abroad to countries that have not committed to mandatory emission reductions.

The scientific case for carbon mitigation is a powerful one. Various reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attest to the need for climate change mitigation. Yet, mitigation-based approaches have run into serious political problems.

Instead of investing political capital predominantly towards mitigation, we suggest re-orienting the policy focus and paying serious attention to adaptation to climate change. Devoting political and economic resources to adaptation will eventually create the political momentum for serious, not just symbolic, mitigation policies. When citizens are asked to pay for adaptation, they will begin to recognize the true costs of global climate change for their communities and their own well-being. Consequently, citizens will hopefully be less likely to invoke the “China excuse” for policy inaction and more willing to support climate change mitigation. Adaptation can be interpreted as a temporary but strategic withdrawal to educate citizens of the dangers of ignoring climate change.

The political opposition to mitigation has multiple reasons. As political scientists have shown, policies that impose concentrated costs on a few actors but create diffused benefits for others are likely to meet with strong opposition. This opposition is accentuated when these costs are incurred by the “policy losers” in the short run, while the benefits can be observed only in the long run. If these benefits are non-excludable, meaning it is difficult to exclude others from benefiting from climate change mitigation, this creates a “free rider” problem. The opposition to the proposed policy is likely to be especially acute if the policy losers perceive the alleged free-rider to be a political and economic competitor who is steadily gaining advantage across multiple issues.

In contrast to mitigation, the political logic of adaptation is compelling. While successful mitigation requires global collective action, adaptation can be successful even when undertaken unilaterally.

Adaptation-related investments create local benefits, not global public goods. Thus, adaptation does not suffer from the free rider problem: those paying for it will also benefit from it. It is difficult to offer the “China excuse” for ignoring adaptation.

We recognize that adaptation is not the silver bullet and faces policy problems. Some players vulnerable to global climate change may not be able to afford to invest in adaptation. This sort of a fiscal mismatch can be handled by appropriate subsidies and other types of redistributive policies.

We are not arguing for abandoning mitigation-based strategies. We are highlighting the logic of political opposition to mitigation and suggest rebalancing the short term efforts towards adaptation. Not only does adaptation deprive politicians of the “China excuse,” it creates new political coalitions to promote pro-environmental policies. As adaptation gathers steam, various groups will begin to recognize the costs of ignoring global climate change. Instead of crowding out mitigation, in the long term, adaptation may create the political support for aggressive mitigation policies.

For more ways to think about climate change read: We feel your pain: Environmentalists Coal miners, and "embedded environmentalism"