Where Is Barack Obama's Global Warming Adaptation Plan?

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I know, I know: If you support “adaptation” in the global warming debate, you run the risk of being mistaken for someone who opposes “mitigation.” But I’m not one of those adaptation-only Bjorn Lomborg types.

I support both capping emissions, and also getting ready for climate change, because I believe the science is clear: We have to do something, fast, to prevent the worst outcomes; but we’re already so far down the global warming path that there will be many changes we can no longer stop, and must live with – and so must prepare for.

But my question is, where is Barack Obama on all of this?

There are two elements of the U.S. presidential transition that puzzle me, that don’t quite fit together as they should. On the one hand, there’s a huge economic stimulus bill coming in January, one that will focus on “green jobs” and spend gobs of money rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.

At the same time, a strong energy and environment team has just been put in place, and will be tasked with handling global warming policy and advancing clean energy. But why isn’t anybody talking about the fact that infrastructure modernization isn’t possible without a full integration of what we know about global warming? You can’t fully update the national infrastructure – particularly in the transportation sector – unless you are simultaneously planning to adapt it to a changing climate. Otherwise you’re throwing money away.

Rick Piltz, one of the best climate bloggers, understands this. So does the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which has warned (with particular reference to transportation infrastructure):

“Climate change will affect transportation primarily through increases in several types of weather and climate extremes. Climate warming over the next 50 to 100 years will be manifested by increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels coupled with storm surges and land subsidence, more frequent intense precipitation events, and increases in the intensity of strong hurricanes. The impacts will vary by mode of transportation and region of the country, but they will be widespread and costly in both human and economic terms and will require significant changes in the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems.”

 This is of course a particular issue in the U.S. Gulf Coast region – hurricane country – where many low-lying bridges and roads must be adapted for stronger storms and rising seas. But the point holds across the country.

I’m confident that the Obama transition team has (and the Obama administration will have) competent people who understand the importance of climate change preparedness measures. But I’m not convinced that the message is yet getting through to those at the top. Folks in the know are worried that while Obama clearly takes global warming seriously, he never really seems to talk about adaptation in the global warming context.

The irony, of course, is that making a major push to adapt our society to climate change will be a critical element of bringing the public along behind other climate policies, whether in the mitigation realm (cap and trade) or the innovation realm (renewable energy investment). It’s no accident that the Bush administration fought a long battle to suppress government activities (the so-called “National Assessment” process) designed to study, report on, and raise public awareness about the ways in which global warming is already affecting everyday Americans, and will continue to do so in the future. From a denialist standpoint, this was dangerous, subversive stuff. It threatened to personalize climate change, to show people how it was affecting their communities, their neighborhoods, their regions. It threatened to make it relevant to citizens.

So not only must we make sure that new infrastructure projects take climate change into account. At the same time, let’s hope somebody convinces president-elect Obama that highlighting climate change preparedness is not only good policy, but good politics.

If you’re living on the Gulf Coast, and your president tells you how much the water might rise, you listen. Suddenly this is personal. The same is true if you’re living in the Southwest, and your president tells you how the frequency of droughts might increase. And so on. Such “bully pulpit” communication will make the public more likely to support climate change mitigation policies that could prove quite expensive, especially in the short term.

It’s an integral part of moving the nation to really grapple with global warming, as it never has before, and as it must now.

 

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