It is quite unfortunate, but if you look at investments in mitigation or adaption, you find that they always follow natural disasters. Even the implication of the USA in international negotiations was related to the drought in the central US in the 1980s. Disasters are striking events, everybody realizes his own vulnerability, this helps making decisions. But there are two problems and I will discuss the one related to adaptation first.
If you want to adapt to long term trends, you cannot work only with single-shot investments and then do nothing until the problem returns. Take a look at New Orleans: They had four heavy hurricanes with huge damages during the last 100 years and each time they agreed that this would have been the last time and decided to invest a lot in sea defenses. And each time, they actually started to invest and the first few years they were really motivated and spent the necessary money. But building an efficient protection system takes 10-15 years and after a few years you meet increase difficulties, such as budgetary constraints. And a dike can easily be postponed in case of budgetary problem. You think, that is fine because it is just for one year. But then it gets postponed forever. That is exactly how the protection system that was planned after the hurricane Betsy in 1965 never got finished. And this was one reason explaining the heavy consequences of hurricane Katrina in 2005.
I am talking about New Orleans because it is a very good example, with the 4 heavy hurricanes. But there are many similar cases, for instance in France. We had a big storm in February 2010, with tens of casualties, followed by an announcement of the president, promising to rebuild all dikes and remove all houses from places that are too risky. But six month later, we see political leadership already disappearing because people resist—what a surprise—against having their homes destroyed and also because it is more expensive than expected to rebuild the dikes. Furthermore, the attention is shifting away. The memory of the disaster is still there with the people directly affected, but the rest of the country, that only saw the disaster on TV, was conscious of it for only a few month.
We realize that this reactive way of managing risks, acting only after disasters, is not very efficient. I think the Netherlands are a good example. The reaction to the flood of 1953 was not primarily to build dikes. More important were changes of institutions and laws to make sure that what was decided at that time had a long term impact. I think that after a disaster you should use the momentum not to find money for building dikes but to change the laws and to change institutions. In a way this is more difficult because after a disaster you want to show that you are doing real things and people tend not to regard institutions and laws as real things. But it is quite the opposite. What can change a situation in a lasting way are laws and institutions.
The second point is more related to climate change impacts and the need to mitigation. If natural hazards change everywhere on the planet in response to climate change, you can basically think of two scenarios. One scenario is the most optimistic: we anticipate the changes in climate and hazards, and we change the way we manage risks to limit disasters. The second scenario, the worse one, is that we do not anticipate but act only after disasters. In that scenario we would need one disaster in every location to prompt action, just to help people realize that risks have changed and actions are necessary.
So here is a very important criterion of what future climate change impacts will be like: will we adapt only after disasters or will we be able to anticipate? Will we be stupid or smart? I was talking about sources of uncertainty at the beginning. Who can guess whether we will be stupid or smart in the future? We have plenty of examples of both. The answer will depend on education, training, media, institutions, politics—it is very complex.
Depending on whether we will be smart or not, climate change impacts will be very different. So, when someone asks me about climate change impacts—whether they will be large or small—I usually say: it depends on whether we will be stupid or smart! Of course, the need for mitigation is different depending on your ideas on this point: if you are pessimistic on how societies will be able to adapt to climate change, then you need to invest much more in mitigation.
You talked already about the two possibilities: fighting climate change or adapting to it. It seems to me that fighting climate change only works on a global scale while adaption can take place very locally. Does this fact not cause people to adapt rather than trying to mitigate?
The first thing is: you do not need an international agreement to do adaptation. But you need an international agreement to do mitigation. However, I think the difference is sometimes overstated. For example when you have a drought in Russia and you loose yields, Russia is closing its borders for the export of wheat. And then you get a hike in wheat prices that will be felt across the globe. When Katrina hit the oil-producing system in the gulf, we got an increase in energy prices everywhere. We have worldwide markets for food and energy, migration make regions even more dependent on each other, much more than in the past. In our world, as soon as one country or region is not able to adapt, everybody will feel the aftershock of this problem. So adaptation also needs some international strategies.
This is especially true for impacts that are already global. Today, natural disasters are globalized through the re-insurance market, and trends in one place of the world matter for everyone. We have India and China and all the emerging economies that start to become insured. This is an additional demand for the re-insurance market and nobody knows if (and at what cost) the global market will be able to absorb this additional demand. This question exists even without climate change. If you add climate change on top of that, the question is even more difficult to answer.
If we take a look at environmental problems in the past and the way they have been tackled—I am thinking of the Ozone depletion problem for example— can we learn something about how to deal with the climate problem, which is much larger and more complex?
It is a bit provocative, but I think we were lucky to have the Ozone issue before global warming. It shows that we can solve global problems. It is also good that it went in that order because the Ozone issue was much easier to solve than the carbon issue, mainly for two reasons. The first is that it just affected a few industrial sectors. We were not talking about economy-wide issues. The second thing is: technological solutions (for example alternatives for CFCs) existed already when we started to look at the Ozone problem.
For the carbon problem it is very different. First, it is not a localized issue at all. The whole economy is affected. And we are talking about mitigation costs that are of the order of a few percent of the GDP—that is really huge. Furthermore, we do not posses magic technologies to solve the problem. It is not just only a bit more expensive—that would be doable. It also involves changes in lifestyle, changes in competitiveness of different countries. Some exporters will be affected in a terrible way, I am thinking of the oil exporting countries. We cannot just bring a few new technologies and pay for it. Solving the problem creates side effects for which we cannot simply just pay. If you remove the income from oil sales for the oil exporting countries, nobody really knows how that can be compensated. Also, you do not just want to give money to a country to make it stop producing oil, that does not really make sense. So the amplitude of the problem is much larger and it goes beyond today's technological possibilities. This is already complicated, but technological issues are still simple compared to lifestyle issues.
The Ozone problem was a training round—and it worked really well. That is also why I think an international agreement is possible. I think the Kyoto process followed a little bit the Ozone process but maybe underestimating the difficulties. Furthermore, it was probably easier to solve the problem in the 1990s, in which you had rich countries on one side, concerned about the Ozone, and developing countries on the other side. Now, we have three types of countries: OECD countries, developing countries and emerging countries. These emerging economies like China, India, or Brazil are very reluctant to accept any international agreement: they are becoming important nations with a voice in the international community and they do not like the idea of having someone in the UN deciding about penalties for not following an agreement. There is also this geopolitical side, which is very recent. 10 years have changed a lot and maybe in another 10 years from now it will be much easier again to get China at the table to solve the problem. But now—it is just wrong timing. The emerging economies really do not like the idea of someone restricting their actions and this is understandable.
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Preparing for Armageddon, Natural Disasters, Nuclear Strikes, the Zombie Apocalypse, and Every Other Threat to Human Life on Earth. Most of us have thought about how we would handle various types of scenarios that could signal the end of the world. There are plenty of movies on the subject, psychological papers, and even survivalists that are part of reality TV shows. Perhaps you have had dreams about being one of the few left and what you would do in order to survive.