Time to start preparing ourselves for the inevitable consequences of climate change

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Time to start preparing ourselves for the inevitable consequences of climate change
Katwijk Duindijk underground parking covered by sand dunes, north of The Hague, credit: Royal HaskoningDHV

Through the ages the Dutch have successfully fought against the sea. Without its dikes and continuous pumping about one third of this densely populated country would disappear below sea level. 10 out of 17,5 million Dutch live so to speak in a bath tub, that is behind a dike.

It was thus no coincidence that the Dutch government recently organised an online video conference on adaptation to climate change with an impressive list of speakers from around the world such as chancellor Merkel, Chinese vice -prime-minister Han and the new US climate tsar, John Kerry.

The conference was also significant for another reason. It was the first time that governments from all over the world plus the UN, IMF and EU engaged in a serious discussion about adaptation to climate change. So far, the official policy debate was mainly about trying to prevent climate change by reducing CO2 emissions.

NGOs like Greenpeace have always been fiercely against talking about adaptation. To them this is politically incorrect, it is like throwing your hat in the ring before the fight starts. In their eyes discussion of adaptation would undermine the sense of urgency to take drastic action now. Of course, as any medic can tell you, prevention is better than cure but what if in this case we are not able, in spite of our best efforts, to stop global warming for both technical and political reasons?

Ignoring that possibility would be imprudent to say the least. Prevention is actually a rather ambitious term as it tries to fully stop something that problematic. Mitigation, that is making something less damaging, combined with clever adaptation is a more realistic option to deal with the adverse consequences of climate change.

To start with, it does not help that the two main carbon free alternatives have serious problems of their own.  Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers nuclear power by far the safest and most efficient way to generate carbon free energy, many people still find it unacceptable because of the waste problem. While the low energy density of wind and solar power not only spoils our landscape, it also implies that the contribution of these durable energy sources to the continuous rise in demand can only be very limited.

Most of this rise does not come from heating or transport but from cooling.  Air conditioning works like a refrigerator with the door constantly open. Unfortunately, some of the most densely populated parts of the world are uninhabitable without it. It is now more than 30 years ago that the IPCC started pleading for a reduction in CO2 emission but it is only in the EU and in North America that we have so-far seen a slight abatement in emissions. And that is mainly because of a change from coal to less polluting gas, not because of a transition to renewable energy.

It is these worrying facts that have forced world leaders to look more seriously at the potential of adaptation, that is a process of change to tailor the world to this new emerging situation.

Dikes and barriers

Well-known examples of adaptation that can protect against rising river and sea levels are dikes and flood barriers, but also protection and replanting of mangrove forests in the tropics.  In areas affected by extreme drought, underground aquifers can be built and new crops are developed that need less water or are resistant to salt water. More generally, water meters coupled to pricing can help to save on precious fresh water. But even with these measures, it is still very likely that millions of people, particularly in poor countries, will have to dislocate due to the adverse effects of climate change.

Merely relying on technology will however not be enough to meet the challenge. The most important unresolved political problem is to agree on who should pay for adaptation. Perhaps it is fair that the countries who started using coal, oil and gas on a large scale 150 years ago, and grew rich as a result of it, should now pick up the bill for the poor countries. Like a pandemic, the risks of climate change can easily cross the world, just think of migration.  According to the World Bank the global price tag for the developing world of adapting to an approximately 2°C warmer world by 2050 is US$70–100 billion per year till 2050. This seems hefty but is not unmanageable. 

One should also not ignore social and cultural barriers. In some countries, contrary to men, women do not learn to swim. Major changes in behaviour coupled to economic incentives are also needed. Airplane travel is likely to continue to grow, but much less fast if tickets would be no longer exempted from VAT and kerosine from excise duty.

Adaptation can be very simple. If you insist on building your house in a river bed prone to regular flooding, then you better make sure that the central heating unit is put in the attic and that the stairwell is wide enough to rescue your furniture in case. Just south of The Hague beach you can stroll over a so-called sand engine, an artificial hook-shaped peninsula with a surface of 1km².  Over the years the sand will be moved by the action of waves, wind and currents and protect the West of the Netherlands against the sea. Normally beaches along the Dutch coast have to be replenished every five years. It is expected that the sand engine will make replenishment unnecessary for the next 20 years.

In Katwijk just north of The Hague you can park your car in a huge underground parking covered by a series of artificial sand dunes. This dike is an example of an integrated solution and combines protection and aesthetics with a revenue model. Already in the 17th century did the Dutch use fertile land reclamation to pay for safety against flooding. These examples, and there are many more, show that if we cannot stop global warming, we would be well advised to focus instead on mitigation and to combine our efforts with timely investment in adaptation.

By Julius op de Beke

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