April 21, 2011
Adler on Climate Adaptation and Drought
Bob Adler has posted to SSRN a fascinating new article on drought's role in climate change. Specifically, Prof. Adler argues that policy will need to shift how it balances the compassionate impulse to offer relief in times of disaster and the ways in which it encourages and discourages risky behaviors. Noting that we are already "committed" to a certain amount of climate change because of past greenhouse gas emissions, Adler concludes:
"[V]ulnerability increases with the frequency of the event, which decreases the recovery interval between disasters. The result will likely be a vicious cycle of relief and increased risk. Given the likelihood of this scenario, perhaps a more 'compassionate' approach is to implement systemic policies to reduce vulnerability to climate-induced disasters by increasing the sustainability of various economic sectors in advance." To demonstrate what changes we might make, Adler uses the agricultural industry, though there are of course applications to numerous other economic sectors.
Adler's article is an important addition to the climate change literature, in particular because it adds to the growing discourse on climate adaptation -- and the increasingly clear consensus that we need both climate change mitigation and adaptation. The focus on water is especially apropos given the close nexus between water availability and one of the key climate change inputs: energy production.
The article is Balancing Compassion and Risk in Climate Adaptation: U.S. Water, Drought and Agricultural Law. It can be downloaded here.
This article compares risk spreading and risk reduction approaches to climate adaptation. Because of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from past practices, the world is "committed" to a significant amount of global average warming. This is likely to lead to significant increases in the frequency, severity and geographic extent of drought. Adaptation to these and other problems caused by climate disruption will be essential even if steps are taken now to mitigate that disruption. Water and drought policy provide an example of the significant policy tension between compassion and risk reduction in climate adaptation, and how those tensions affect broader national economic policies. Because water is essential to lives and livelihoods, the compassionate response to drought is to provide financial and other forms of relief. Guaranteed, unconditional drought relief, however, can encourage unsustainable water uses and practices that increase vulnerability to drought in the long-term. Moreover, the agricultural sector is the largest consumptive user of water in drought-prone regions, but longstanding U.S. agricultural policy encourages excess production and water use. Effective adaptation to climate disruption will have to strike a balance between providing essential short-term relief from hardship and promoting longer-term measures to reduce vulnerability through more sustainable water use and other practices. It will also require fundamental reconsideration of laws and policies that drive key economic sectors that will be affected by climate disruption. Although water, drought and agricultural law provide one good example of this tension, the same lessons are likely to apply to other sectors of the economy vulnerable to climate disruption, such as real estate development and energy production.
- Lincoln Davies
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