Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Notes on the costs of adaptation

Whilst I’m interested in climate change science and the debate that surrounds it, my main preoccupation lies with how the effects of change might be dealt with in just fashion.  It seems to me that unpicking the positions around the climate change science debate requires an understanding of natural science methodologies and a virtually unlimited amount of time - neither of which I have. Nonetheless, there are aspects to climate science that are hugely important in considerations of just societal responses to the impacts of climate change.   

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report[1] argues both that “Warming of the climate change system is unequivocal” (2007, p.30) and that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperature since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.” (2007, p.39) The largest growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 1970 and 2004, it proposes, came from energy supply, transport and industry, during which time emissions grew by 70%.
Coasts – my area of interest – “are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion…and sea level rise” (2007, p.46).  The “densely populated and low-lying megadeltas of Asia and Africa” and “small islands” are identified as especially vulnerable in this regard.

The 2007/2008 UN Development Report Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World[2] also flags up coastal zones in this regard, adding that the “consequences could be apocalyptic” (2007-8, p.3) for the world’s poorest people, an observation that is accompanied by the assessment that “those who have largely caused the problem – the rich countries – are not going to be those who suffer the most in the short term.” (2007, p.5)
In rich countries, the report suggests, “coping with climate change to date has largely been a matter of adjusting thermometers, dealing with longer hotter summers, and observing seasonal shifts” As sea levels rise, it continues, “Cities like London and Los Angeles may face flooding risks…but their inhabitants are protected by elaborate flood defence systems.” (2007, p.9)
Quite rightly, the report urges that “the world’s poor cannot be left to sink or swim with their own resources while rich countries protect their citizens behind climate-defence fortifications. Social justice and respect for human rights demands stronger international commitments on adaptation” (2007, p.13) if we are avoid what Desmond Tutu has called “drifting into a world of adaptation apartheid.” (2007, p.24)  We might exercise caution, however, in assuming a uniformity of insulation against the effects of climate change for those who live in the ‘rich’ world -  for example, those residents of New Orleans whose lives were shattered by the flooding that attended the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.  The report correctly observes that even those in the richest countries can be vulnerable, and that this is exacerbated when “impacts interact with institutionalized inequality.” (2007, p.16) 

The IPCC proposes that even if emissions of GHGs were to be stabilised (which to my untrained eye looks most unlikely any time soon) “anthropogenic warming and sea level rise would continue for centuries” (2007, p.46) which means that a focus on adaptation involving a just distribution of costs and benefits is an urgent priority. Adger[3] argues that the real justice question in what he describes the “one of the most contentious issues of global governance” (2010, p276) is not about the “distribution of rights to emit” (2010, p.278) which so preoccupies governments but “the avoidance of catastrophic harm” (2010, p.278). And he suggests that if human activities are the cause of climate change (and this seems to be accepted in the relevant UK government discourse at least), “then adaptation involves issues such as compensation and liability.” His “human-centred view of security” (2010, p.281) foregrounds personal  well-being and “individuals  and localities having the options to respond to threats to their human, environmental and social well-being imposed by climate change, and having the capacity and freedom to exercise these options.” (2010, p.281)

Around England and Wales in recent years, people have learned that the cost of protecting them and their homes from the sea will at some point outweigh the benefits offered to the public purse - assuming it doesn’t already. For these people – resident in the rich world – the prospect can look devastating, and I’m sure that as one of them I’m not alone in having found my options to respond to Adger’s threats limited indeed. All of us whose well-being is threatened by sea level rise as a consequence of man-made climate change - whether in the megadeltas of Asia and Africa, in New Orleans or perched on eroding cliffs in Norfolk – warrant a better shake.

With best wishes


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[2] United Nations. 2007. Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York.
[3] Adger, W.N. 2010. Climate Change, Human Well-Being and Insecurity. New Political Economy. Vol 15, No 2, pp.275-292.


R said...

Is the issue of whether the cause of climate change is anthropogenic not a diversion which allows those who believe not, to absolve themselves of responsibility for those who suffer from it? Would it be better for those campaigning for compensation to say that whatever the cause, it is unfair for some to suffer the consequences more than others?

Chris Blunkell said...

It's a good point. As this blog proceeds I hope to further explore how the question of risk in dealt with and its costs allocated. To my mind it is telling - and morally dissonant - that the UK government appears on the one hand to accept that climate change and its impacts are caused by colelctive human activity, but as of yet appears content for (some) citizens to bear the consequences individually.