More sea walls aren't enough to deal with climate change.

Got Chikungunya? Thank Climate Change

Tom Zeller Jr., a 2014 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, spent 15 years as a staff writer and editor covering the intersection of politics, science and energy policy at the New York Times, National Geographic magazine and Huffington Post.
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A string of developments in recent days suggests that reducing global carbon emissions remains as politically divisive as ever -- so much so that nations often appear to be moving in the opposite direction. That might make the related notion of climate adaptation, wherein governments resolve to simply fortify or inoculate their infrastructures and institutions against the impacts of global warming, appear to be an attractive Plan B.

But the truth is that both mitigation and adaptation are needed to tackle the challenges of a warming planet. More important, without more of the former, the latter becomes an increasingly difficult, and perhaps even futile, goal.

QuickTake Climate Change

That reality was lost on the Australian Senate, which voted last week to repeal the nation's three-year-old carbon tax, one of the most ambitious climate policies in the developed world and one that was once seen as a harbinger of other international efforts to come. But amid a flagging economy and rising unemployment, the tax became a political bugaboo. Its demise, by a 39-32 vote, was a major blow for advocates of carbon taxes -- viewed by many as perhaps the most effective way to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Two days later, President Barack Obama announced he would lift a long-standing moratorium on oil and gas exploration along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. -- a move that delighted the fossil-fuel industry but outraged environmental groups. "For more than 30 years, the Atlantic coast has been off limits to offshore drilling," Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass said. "Our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money."

And this week, it was revealed that Peru's leadership had quietly stripped that nation's environmental ministry of any meaningful regulatory power -- including its oversight of air, water and soil pollution -- in a law enacted earlier this month. The tack is widely seen as a means of encouraging the expansion of industrial-scale mining operations, which have helped to lift millions of Peruvians out of poverty but have destroyed carbon-trapping rain forests along the way. Ironically, Peru will play host to the next round of United Nations climate talks later this year. The expectations for finding consensus there, as at most past meetings, are not particularly high.

This, of course, places special importance on efforts from agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released a guide last week for state health departments looking to assess their vulnerability to shifting climate patterns. "The changing climate is linked to increases in a wide range of non-communicable and infectious diseases," noted the report.

A case in point: chikungunya, a painful, mosquito-borne virus once confined largely to East Africa. Scientists and health officials in the Western Hemisphere, speculating that changes in the climate have given rise to new habitats for mosquitoes carrying the vector, have been watching the illness spread to Mexico and the Caribbean in recent years. Last week, the first locally acquired cases of chikungunya showed up in Miami and Palm Beach County.

By now, more than a dozen European governments have established formal adaptation frameworks of one sort or another, with strategies aimed, depending on the country, at reinforcing flood controls and other infrastructure, anticipating looming agricultural productivity shifts, and getting in front of emerging public-health concerns. Even China, which issued its first National Climate Change Strategy last year, is beginning to contemplate the need for formal adaptation strategies across its myriad regions and climates.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military has become increasingly and publicly cognizant of the threats posed by global warming and the need for adaptation. "Climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake," the Department of Defense noted in its landmark Quadrennial Defense Review of 2010. "The Department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required."

From a variety of perspectives, then, preparing for and adapting to a new normal is an important strategy in addressing climate change. But it's also worth noting that a group of 11 retired admirals and generals argued in May that adaptation only makes sense if it is "accompanied by actionable agreements on ways to stabilize climate change."

Why? Well, in part because large-scale adaptation strategies -- new flood-control systems to fortify low-lying cities in the U.S. Northeast, for example, or the possibility of re-engineering Miami -- are likely to prove at least as complicated politically, economically and socially as mitigation, even as the climate clock keeps ticking.

In the U.S. alone, we might reasonably anticipate pitched and prolonged battles over who gets funding for new sea walls and who will be forced to abandon the coasts entirely. Similarly, who will gain access to more climate-resilient homes and buildings, and who will be left out for want of resources?

And all of this says nothing of many impoverished regions around the world where climate change will be most deeply felt, and where adaptation resources are virtually nonexistent. Is the rich world obliged to help, given that the climate problem is almost entirely of their making? How many billions of dollars will be set aside for such purposes, and where will it come from? The U.S.? Europe? At international climate negotiations, these questions loom as large and intractably as those concerning carbon dioxide limits.

And that doesn't even consider the worst-case scenario. The 2014 assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the notion of planetary "tipping points," wherein atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide become so high that they throw the global climate dangerously out of balance. In such a scenario, change becomes chaotic and nonlinear, making adaptation difficult, if not impossible.

The science on such tipping points remains murky. But even short of catastrophe, the panel suggested that political bickering, conflicting interests, and uneven distribution of technology and financial resources across the planet are likely to limit the effectiveness of adaptation as a sole strategy. If emissions continue unchecked, after all, effective adaptation becomes something of a moving target -- always just out of reach.

"The economic, social, and environmental risks of unabated climate change are immense," wrote group of international climate experts in a lengthy report for the UN earlier this month. "They threaten to roll back the fruits of decades of growth and development, undermine prosperity, and jeopardize countries' ability to achieve even the most basic socioeconomic development goals in the future, including the eradication of poverty and continued economic growth. These risks affect all developed and developing countries alike."

How shall the world adapt to that?

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To contact the author on this story:
Tom Zeller at

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at