Adaptation is the Bet Worth Taking

An Essay by Kenneth Hersh, President and CEO of the George W. Bush Presidential Center

A changing climate should not be ignored, but there are compassionate conservative solutions that enable progress without resulting in economic loss.

Bush Center CEO Ken Hersh speaks at the 2019 Forum on Leadership (Paul Morse / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Human beings are amazing creatures.

We have evolved from primitive stages of survival to an unparalleled level of modernity. We have adapted to the many challenges thrown at us by Mother Nature by combining intellect and creativity to the necessities of the day.

Whether it be an all-out assault on major health crises (think polio), the exponential increase in agricultural yields to feed a planet that many expected to be tapped out at 1 billion people, or the understanding of science and space, mankind has risen to the challenge. We continue to conquer the seemingly impossible.

In a similar light, “adaptation” needs to find its way into the mainstream strategic priorities regarding climate change. Over the course of geologic time, the Earth has experienced frequent and rapid changes. We know that forests once enveloped the poles and that ice sheets covered what are today’s deserts. We have the tools now to chart and document the changing climate and have attempted to model (with history as a guide) what the future will look like.

While those models are debated and inferences pondered, what is clear is that the planet is changing. Debating whether this is due to man’s actions is simply playing the blame game. The key question is, what to do about it?

The present course is not working

Before we can answer that question, we need to understand the limitations of our current course.

The climate debate has been focused on reaching global consensus regarding emissions reductions, causing serious delays. If the climate models are even half-true, the one thing that can be agreed upon is the absence of time.

The climate debate has been focused on reaching global consensus regarding emissions reductions, causing serious delays. If the climate models are even half-true, the one thing that can be agreed upon is the absence of time.

According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CO2 levels in the atmosphere of 450 million parts per million would cause a 2° Celsius warming. We have already reached the 410 parts per million levels that climate experts consider will make a 1.5° Celsius warming inevitable. 

The climate industry has consumed valuable time in taking over 20 years to reach the 196-country Paris Agreement on a plan that allows an increase in CO2 above those targets. Never mind that the U.N. Environment Program acknowledges the Paris Agreement itself would admittedly fail to reach the 2° Celsius emissions goals even if all the targets were achieved.

The Paris accord focused on how and when countries would achieve voluntary goals on renewable energy use and other mitigation efforts, without enforcement mechanisms. Nor was there any plan for paying what the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated to be the $13 trillion needed to meet those goals. The objective was to limit emissions, even if countries would have to re-engineer their economies, industries, and, in many cases, their modernity.

Frankly, such emphasis has been misplaced. Emissions controls should be focused on the countries and industries in which emissions matter most.  Of the 196 countries, 189 of them are less relevant since the top seven emitters comprise 60 percent of the 37 billion tons of CO2 emitted globally.

Mother Nature does not know the difference between Chinese CO2 and Namibian CO2. Other than China and India, emerging economies comprise small percentages of global emissions. We should not insist that they chase expensive, technologically-difficult alternative energy if they can readily access traditional sources to power their countries. Let economics determine their energy source.

Electrifying communities in small markets, even if by fossil fuels, will do more for those communities than expensive alternative power that needs fossil fuel back-up generation to compensate for its intermittency. History has proven that reliable and plentiful power enables sanitation, refrigeration, food abundance, and industry. It does more for human health, education, and wellbeing than any social program. Today, 4 million people die from indoor air pollution because over 2 billion people cook and heat their homes using solid fuels, including wood, animal dung, crop waste, and coal. A centrally-located power plant would change everything.

The compassionate policy is to allow those smaller countries to electrify, by whatever means necessary. Their emissions profiles are too small to make a difference globally, and their quality of life will improve dramatically. Those countries then will be better able to adapt later as they learn how the major economies have adapted.

Of course, renewable energy sources should be used if they are economically superior to conventional sources. But that should be the criteria, especially since cheaper energy has proved to be the backbone to economic development.

By primarily focusing on reducing CO2 through energy policy changes, we have used up time and made little progress. Despite the $2.9 trillion that the world has spent on alternative energy in the past 15 years, global CO2 emissions have risen 24 percent.  At the same time, oil use is up 16 percent, natural gas use is up 37 percent, and coal use is up 29 percent. Alternative energy use may have grown an astounding 142 percent, but renewables still only satisfy some 10 percent of global energy demand.

By primarily focusing on reducing CO2 through energy policy changes, we have used up time and made little progress.

Don’t get me wrong: It isn’t bad to push for more renewable energy. But, if the goal is to reduce emissions rather than simply reduce their growth rate, the efforts have not worked. And focusing on market share doesn’t equate to reductions in emissions since the IEA estimates global energy demand will grow 25 percent by 2040.

Natural gas supplies could replace much of the coal-fired power generation in countries like China. (Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images)

Even if every country hits their Paris targets, the IEA reports that by 2040 actual tonnage of coal burned would increase by 2 percent in the aggregate. That’s true even though fossil fuels’ share of energy demand would fall from 81 percent today to 75 percent and coal’s would drop from 27 percent to 22 percent.

The case for adaptation

The best way forward is pursuing strategies that allow nations, states, and communities to adapt to modern realities, including adapting to pressures beyond the climate. The world’s population is set to increase by 2 billion, become increasingly urbanized, and consume more like middle-classes. Even if  we emit less on a per capita basis, the aggregate emissions will increase simply due to population and economic growth. The same adaptation efforts would be needed to accommodate it.

The best way forward is pursuing strategies that allow nations, states, and communities to adapt to modern realities, including adapting to pressures beyond the climate.

Of course, the climate is the major reason to focus on adaption. Measures like hardening our coastal defenses make sense given that the majority of the world’s population and GDP is located within 25 miles of a coast or major body of water. Let’s not fail to do the obvious, starting with concentrating scarce resources on adaptation for those who are now vulnerable.

We also should encourage easy displacement of coal-fired power generation and invest heavily in “leapfrog” technologies. The developed world can leapfrog to new technologies 25-to-50 years out, while focusing its efforts today on lowering the emissions profile of the top few economies.

Public and private research funds should be directed toward those technologies that can re-engineer our world rather than simply replace an energy source. By this, I mean targeting alternative ways to move around, produce, and consume energy. We also should pursue carbon sequestration and geo-engineering technologies that help the planet work harder to consume CO2.

In the short term, sharp focus should be put on adaptation strategies informed by the likes of the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, which I helped launch, or the Copenhagen Consensus. They make a difference by providing resources to help focus global adaptation efforts.

As counter-intuitive as this next recommendation may sound, energy production will be our friend as we adapt to climate change. Natural gas production has allowed the U.S. to reach its Kyoto treaty goals without even being a signatory. As co-founder and advisory partner of NGP Energy Capital Management, I have seen how the combination of rule of law, property rights, open capital markets, and human ingenuity enabled independent oil and gas entrepreneurs to produce natural gas from the toughest geology in the world.

As counter-intuitive as this next recommendation may sound, energy production will be our friend as we adapt to climate change.
Natural gas is now being produced from the toughest geology in the world.

The natural gas revolution has increased supply and decreased cost so that gas is more competitive than coal as an electricity source in the United States. As a result, U.S. emissions have decreased even as our electricity demand has increased in the aggregate. Since 2005, market forces have reduced our CO2 emissions by 13 percent from nearly 6 billion tons to 5.1 billion tons. Those are levels not seen since before 1995. The U.S. is a model for others to reduce their emissions from coal as well.

Plentiful natural gas supplies around the globe also can replace much of the coal-fired power generation in the top emitting countries without waiting for new technological innovation. If motivated, China can replace its installed coal generation capacity with cleaner-burning natural gas in a feasible Chinese Green New Deal that would only take a decade.

By my calculations, Chinese CO2 emissions would drop by 25 percent — equal to a full 5 percent reduction in global emissions. Given the enormous natural gas supplies in places like the U.S., Australia, and the Middle East, Chinese imports of natural gas on this scale can be readily achieved. Solar and wind power can complement the equation where they are economically viable.

Our choice

Focusing predominantly on removing the emissions’ source is tantamount to adopting a “turn back the clock” strategy and wishing away the parts of industrial society that have enabled a remarkable advance in mankind’s living standards and longevity. Societies rarely choose to give up gains that have benefited many. I doubt our generation will be the first to find wisdom in going backward, not when you look at the track record human beings have in advancing and adapting.

My money is on the future, but we cannot delay. And we cannot ignore the facts.

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