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Climate Policy Interface: Analysis

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 9:23 PM GMT on April 12, 2009

Climate Policy Interface: Analysis

In my last entry I posed a simple poll. What impacts attributed to climate change do you think will be the policy motivators? In general most of the “first” answers focus around agriculture, public health, and water resources.

A few years ago I was listening to a talk by the economist Robert Mendelsohn. The talk was about how farmers in South America might respond to climate change – basic adaptation. In became clear in the talk that in a “developed” nation, like the U.S., agriculture was considered, mostly, insensitive to climate change. There were several reasons for this perceived insensitivity. These reasons ranged from our ability to provide protection of, for example, cattle from the environment, to move the cattle around, and that feed was a commodity, and if you looked across the world as a whole, feed would be available. This insensitivity to climate change helped to define my thinking on several problems of potential climate change impacts.

If you look into the literature of climate change and public health or the literature of climate change and agriculture, you will find a wide range of analyses and conclusions. Compared with, for example, the science of the physical climate is far less contentious – far less. Here are some ideas for analysis.

Existing Problem: Environmental parameters already stress agriculture and public health and cause a wide range of problems. Therefore, it is not the case that climate change “causes” these problems. In many cases we anticipate that climate change will amplify existing stresses. Some stresses will be lessened. Every analysis I have seen concludes, strongly, that the costs associated with amplified stresses will far outweigh the benefits from lessened stresses.

The fact that these are existing problems has several implications. First, it means that there is an existing community focused on the problem. There are strategies for addressing the problem. Therefore, the first response is often how does one build increased capacity into the existing capability? Second, the existence of a community means that there is an existing core of knowledge, and most likely, the community has evolved thinking in how to address climate change. Often what they need to know is - will extreme events become more extreme and will they become more frequent? (A possibly interesting aside: This week Louis Uccellini, Director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction gave the AOSS Spencer Lecture. In his historical overview of forecasting he said that when he started in forecasting it was policy to “not predict” extreme events because it was assumed that models could not predict other than average events. The world and models have changed.)

Climate change stress on these problems also sits in relation to problems of population and demand.

Engineering and Technology: If one examines, for example, water resources or heat waves, one is immediately faced with the fact that climate change pales in the face of our ability to engineer solutions. For example, in most of the U.S. water resources are controlled by policy and engineering, such as canals and dams. The real question of climate change is will it change the basic background state – that’s a different blog. Heat waves are best met by, for example, air conditioning, cooling centers, and engineering cities with parks and green roofs and materials to reduce the urban intensification of heat.

Social Capacity: Problems such as heat waves are often best addressed by warnings, preparation, and education. That is, if people and first responders are educated about heat and what to do, given warning, and are able to prepare, then the impact of the heat wave can be reduced or eliminated. This is a specific example of building in the ability to respond or to adapt. The use of warnings, preparation and education is often the first line of response so that the environmental impact does not come out of the blue.

Climate Change: Climate change does not have a simple cause and effect with these impacts and response to these impacts. For example, mitigation of climate, meaning the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, will not directly affect these impacts for many, many years. Therefore, directly addressing impacts is drawn to building adaptive capacity instead of controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, I conclude that relying upon impacts to motivate the development on policy on carbon dioxide emissions is a relatively weak motivation. The first line of response is, logically, to address issues of technology, engineering and social capacity.

Where does this leave us? What are the impacts that might motivate the development of policy?


As my devoted and attentive readers will recall in this blog I said that the next big climate story would be about the reduction of CO2 emissions due to the recession. Here it starts. USAToday: Bad economy helps cut CO2 emissions. I would take issue that it is an “unexpected benefit.” Also I don’t know why there is a reference to “milder weather” in the article.

From last time: What color is the sky? Carolina Blue.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.