Bjorn Lomborg Both On- and Off-Target on Climate Change

(from Wikipedia)
The Washington Post published an op-ed by Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial climate change author.  In this op-ed, he argues that humans are capable of adapting to climate change, and can easily do so.

"The process is called adaptation, and it's something we humans are very good at. That isn't surprising, since we've been doing it for millennia. As climate economist Richard Tol notes, our ability to adapt to widely varying climates explains how people live happily at both the equator and the poles. In the debate over global warming, in which some have argued that civilization as we know it is at stake, this is an important point. Humankind is not completely at the mercy of nature. To the contrary, when it comes to dealing with the impact of climate change, we've compiled a pretty impressive track record. While this doesn't mean we can afford to ignore climate change, it provides a powerful reason not to panic about it either."

Millennia he says.  Not really.  Although humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, civilization has only been around for about 10,000 years--a time period during which climate has been remarkably stable.  Replacing "humans" with "civilizations" makes his statements false.  Civilizations are not good at adapting to changes in climates.  It's true that we have different civilizations in radically different climates, but they don't move from one to another.  Read Jared Diamond's Collapse for a perspective on how making environmental changes can effect civilizations.  (hint: they don't adapt well.) 

He cites the example of Tokyo, which has subsided up to 15 feet in places, as an example of how we humans can adapt to rising sea levels.  Also the Netherlands.  Both of those countries, of course, are highly developed and wealthy.  A counterexample of Vienna--from another developed country, to boot--might be brought forward as a likely lost cause, a place that will be unable to effectively adapt. 

(photo from Oxfam)
More to the point, how about New Orleans?  How about Pakistan floods?  How about Russian heat waves?  How about the 2003 European heat wave that caused tens of thousands of deaths?  We did not do a very good job of adapting to those, did we?  From my viewpoint, we humans are pretty piss-poor at this adaptation thing, so cavalierly stating that we'll be able to adapt is irresponsible.  And, to emphasize a previous point, who is going to pay for all the adaptation in developing countries if we can't even do it well in the developed world?

"One of the most pernicious impacts of global warming is the extent to which it exacerbates the phenomenon known as the urban "heat island effect."
Hashem Akbari, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in cost-effective methods of combating the effects of climate change in urban areas, has shown that by painting roofs white, covering asphalt roadways with concrete-colored surfaces and planting shade trees, local temperatures could be reduced by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Painting streets and rooftops white may sound impractical, if not silly, but it's a realistic strategy - which is to say, it's effective and affordable."

Agreed.  I might point out that this is not news.  The idea of reducing the urban heat island effect has been around for at least a couple of decades.  It's highly effective.  It even helps with mitigation (.e. reducing greenhouse gases).  We haven't done it.  When does he suggest we start?
Also, it's local.  Yes, it might be possible to reduce temperatures in LA or Beirut, but the Arctic is still going to warm just as much.

He ends with this statement:
"Obviously, whether it involves dikes or buckets of white paint, adaptation is not a long-term solution to global warming. Rather, it will enable us to get by while we figure out the best way to address the root causes of man-made climate change. This may not seem like much, but at a time when fears of a supposedly imminent apocalypse threaten to swamp rational debate about climate policy, it's worth noting that coping with climate change is something we know how to do."

We also know how to reduce greenhouse gases.  We already have strategies that can address half or more of the "root causes" of man-made climate change.  In many cases it's even easier and cheaper than adaptation. But every day we delay mitigation means even more adaptation.  I agree that we need to adapt; we'll be forced to, since we're not acting fast enough on climate anyway.  But starting yesterday, we really, really need to reduce.

I think Mr. Lomborg performs a disservice with this op-ed.  By emphasizing the (false) "ease" with which we humans can adapt, he de-emphasizes the need for much more rapid and serious action on reducing greenhouse gases.  In fact, he almost recommends further delay.  Also, his contention that we still need to figure out the "best way to address the root causes" is just silly.  We need to pursue ALL the ways to address the causes--not waste our time trying to find a silver bullet "best way."

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