Voice

Adapt or Die

Still think climate change is a joke?

See more photos of vulnerable coastal areas here. 

I'm one of the lucky ones. I live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and I haven't lost a minute of power to Sandy. Many of my friends have, of course; as I write this, my wife's nephew, and our god-daughter, are asleep in our apartment. The storm has upended vastly more lives than anyone expected -- the death toll in New York City is up to 38, while most of Hoboken, just across the Hudson, remains underwater. Still, New York will feel like New York again quite soon, for a great Western capital is an inherently resilient place. "Can you imagine," asks Cristina Rumbaitis Del Rio, a climate change expert at the Rockefeller Foundation, "something like this happening in Calcutta or Dhaka, where people live in substandard housing and there isn't the communications infrastructure to lead to the preparedness we saw in New York City?"

It doesn't take too much imagination. In the last few years, vast floods have ravaged Manila and Bangkok; in 2005, storm waters killed close to 1,000 people in Mumbai. Coastal cities, of course, have always been subject to floods and storm surges, but climate change has increased that vulnerability owing to rising sea levels and the increasing violence of storms. And the number of people exposed to those risks has grown rapidly as people have flocked to cities. Over 400 million people now live in urban areas situated 10 meters or less above sea level, most of them in Asia. A sea-level rise of 38 centimeters has been estimated to increase by a factor of five the number of people affected by such flooding. The U.S. Geological Survey has projected that oceans will rise by between 60 centimeters and 1.9 meters by 2100. Is that a graphic enough picture?

The long-term answer to the problem, of course, is to bend the curve of climate change downward by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But even should this somehow comes to pass, the cumulative effects of global warming ensure that the kind of damage we have begun to see -- in farms and forests as well as in cities -- will grow in the coming decades. This is why climate scientists and policy advocates have increasingly focused on adaptation as the solution to the inevitable effects of global warming.

Adaptation involves both big infrastructure projects, like the kind of storm gates now being considered for New York City, and myriad changes in early-warning and evacuation systems, building design, urban planning, wetlands development, and the like. It's not cheap, though it's much cheaper than doing nothing. In a 2010 report, the World Bank estimated that the cost of adapting to a world 2 degrees centigrade warmer than the historic baseline would be $70-$100 billion a year between now and 2050.

The likelihood that donor countries will mobilize such a vast sum, which is roughly equal to the total amount now spent on development aid, is only slightly greater than the likelihood of drastic action to reduce global emissions. But the auguries are a little bit better. At the otherwise unsuccessful 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, donors pledged to spend $10 billion a year over the ensuing three years on a combination of adaptation, especially in vulnerable countries, and "mitigation" -- reducing emissions -- while building towards a goal of spending $100 billion a year by 2020. Most of those pledges have in fact been committed, including by the United States, whose share of the three-year total comes to $5.1 billion. So far, however, very little of that money has been disbursed, apparently because the international financial institutions which hold it in trust have been slow to move.

Adaptation, by its nature, is a localized activity, and there are innumerable pilot projects and studies and actual programs going on in affected areas. Bangladesh, which according to the World Bank study is on the receiving end of 40 percent of the world's storm surges,  has been adapting to calamity since the 1960s by building coastal embankments and shelters, planting trees, and establishing early-warning systems. The Rockefeller Foundation's Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network funds programs in 10 cities, mostly medium-sized places like Surat, in western India, or Da Nang, in Vietnam. The program works with municipal leaders and local organizations to devise small-scale, high-impact measures such as modeling flood zones or building public-health campaigns to reduce the incidence of malaria and other insect-borne diseases. But it's all very modest. In Bangladesh, for example, natural disasters already absorb 0.5 to 1 percent of gross domestic product; absent more ambitious adaptation measures, that may well be the cost of each of the more severe cyclones expected in the future.  

Who's going to pay for that? China and India, which together have almost a third of the affected coastal population, are increasingly self-reliant, and should be expected to make serious contributions towards the cost of adaptation -- though their current position has been that the West has caused global warming, so the West should pay for the consequences. What about us? Until Hurricane Katrina, citizens in the West could look on epic flooding as just another awful problem besetting the Third World. But that's a pre-global warming mentality. As John Mutter, a climate scientist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, puts it, "one way to think about a world getting warmer is that the tropics are just bigger." Natural disasters once largely confined to 30 degrees from the equator are now creeping towards the forties, where the West's great centers of commerce and creation lie. New York in 2030 may feel like Manila in 1970. Climate-change adaptation will become part of our lives because it will have to. Whether that will make the West more or less likely to finance this adaptation and mitigation in more vulnerable parts of the world is another question.

Of course, if you keep treating the symptoms rather than the disease, the treatment will only get more expensive, and more desperate. As Dean Bialek, director for climate change at the non-profit advisory group Independent Diplomat, puts it, "All the adaptation in the world will fall way short if we don't peak global emissions before 2020, and U.S. leadership is the sine qua non to a more concerted global effort, particularly in China." That is, China, as well as the other emerging nations whose rapidly expanding economies account for a growing fraction of emissions, must agree to sharply reduce the rate of emissions even while continuing to grow -- and they will not do so unless the United States agrees to adopt equivalent measures.

In this respect, climate change is a lot like nuclear nonproliferation. President Barack Obama understood very clearly that other states would not agree to restrain nuclear proliferation unless and until Washington accepted its own end of the bargain -- reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons. Within the limits of what is politically impossible, Obama has done just that. He has made virtually no progress on climate change because it hasn't been politically possible to do so; but this, in turn, ensures that the global problem will only get worse. Still, recent polls have found that Americans do want the Washington to take a leadership position on climate change, though are leery of the kind of tax policies which might be required to address the problem. Sandy may move the needle of public opinion a little further. Should he win next Tuesday, Mitt Romney, who cannot admit to even believing that humans cause climate change, is unlikely to do anything about the problem. If Obama is re-elected, he will have no choice but to lavish a great deal of political capital on this intractable subject. But isn't that what a second term is for?

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Terms of Engagement

The Amphibian

How Barack Obama learned to cover his right flank -- and his left.

It probably didn't do him a bit of good, but Barack Obama performed a lot better in this week's debate than many of his supporters -- okay, the one writing this column -- had feared. The reason for Obama's success was simple enough: Mitt Romney could not find enough politically usable space to Obama's right. In the Republican primaries, Romney could bid for the loony-tune vote by castigating the president as a closet European who doesn't really love America. But all that went out the window when Romney had to reassure independent voters that he could be trusted with America's national security. Romney could not figure out how to sound tougher than Obama without sounding reckless.

You'd have to go back to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 -- the last pre-Vietnam election -- to find a Democrat who pulled off that trick. But LBJ was a Cold Warrior; in the 2008 campaign, Obama appeared to run to the left of Hillary Clinton, who had voted in favor of the war in Iraq and whom Obama scorned as a prisoner of conventional thinking. And yet today it is much easier to mount a coherent critique of Obama's foreign policy from the traditional left -- or from the isolationist right -- than it is from the position of responsible conservatism which Romney was trying to assume in the debate. What happened?

Of course, Obama's aggressive prosecution of the war on terror, and his decision to double down on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, made him much less vulnerable to the standard GOP allegation that Democrats are soft on national security even as it angered many liberals. But even before he became president, Obama scrambled the conventional understanding of "left" and "right" in foreign policy. He never had the visceral discomfort with the use of American power, and especially military power, which marked liberals who came of age during the Vietnam War. He wanted to draw down in Iraq in order to ramp up in Afghanistan. He was even able to out-flank Romney during the debate by recalling that in the 2008 campaign he had vowed to violate Pakistani sovereignty, if need be, to track down a high-value target, while Romney had denounced the idea.

One of the reasons why Obama has always been so hard to draw an ideological bead on is that the "engagement" paradigm -- which he hit on during the 2008 campaign, and made his watchword once he took office -- can be understood both as a form of "realism" and as a form of "idealism," as both right and left. The willingness to put values aside in the hopes of finding common ground even with America's most inveterate adversaries is classic realism, which is why figures like Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell felt, and continue to feel comfortable with Obama. But the belief that through gestures of respect and deference you can bring rogue states like Iran or North Korea to a rational discussion of shared interests constituted a form of idealism in the face of George W. Bush's unyielding bellicosity.

Obama's foreign policy was thus ideologically amphibious from the outset. Of course, for that very reason it could be criticized from both sides. Liberals worried that Obama was giving short shrift to human rights and democracy promotion in Iran, Russia, and China in order to advance his agenda on nuclear nonproliferation or climate change or trade balances. (Neo-cons made the same claim in much less varnished terms.) And conservatives accused him of naïvely imagining that displays of humility and cultural sensitivity would somehow make dictators more amenable to compromise. 

Over time, as I wrote last week, Obama has moved away from, though scarcely rejected, the engagement paradigm. He has learned that professions of deference and respect don't do as much as he thought to alter the basic calculus of enemies like Iran or North Korea, or refractory powers like Russia or China. The Obama of 2012 no longer speaks the language of "mutual respect for mutual interests" with autocratic states; in this week's debate, he even described China as an "adversary." He is a chastened and less hopeful figure, though also one much less easily reproached as naïve.

But he is also, strikingly, less "realist." The Obama of 2009 was prepared to soft-pedal scratchy issues like human rights and democracy in order to persuade China to take action on currency and trade issues, and to accept a more active role in global decision-making. It didn't work: Obama accomplished little on his trip to China that fall, and the White House felt that he had been ill-treated. Engagement looked like a one-way street. When Obama returned to the region in the fall of 2011, he pointedly declared that those who seek to rule by "one man" or "by committee" neglect "the ultimate source of power and legitimacy -- the will of the people." The administration has also recognized, as one official puts it, that "you can hold your ground, and still succeed." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deeply offended her Chinese hosts when she negotiated for the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, but managed at the same time to conduct the planed Strategic Dialogue.

In his 2009 Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, Obama mocked those who opposed engagement policy in favor of "the satisfying purity of indignation." One of the White House mantras of those early years was "consequentialism" -- the principle that you don't criticize other regimes if it won't do any good. But as Obama has learned the limits of engagement, consequentialism has been consigned to the lexicographical doghouse. Clinton's sharp criticism of Russia's rigged parliamentary elections last year was bound to make relations with Russia worse -- and it did -- but by then the "reset" policy was already dead, and there was nothing to gain by restraint.

And so Obama's worldview has evolved in a distinctive way, if much more subtly than did George W. Bush's, which lurched from realism to a kind of magic idealism, and then back to something more traditional. Obama has become both tougher and more moralistic -- more realistic, yet less realist. Two administration officials I spoke to said that they expected that, should he win a second term, Obama would show growing confidence about delivering tough judgments on autocratic states. For the moment, this development has made him a very difficult target for his challenger to hit. Romney has criticized Obama's decision to remain silent in the early days of Iran's abortive Green Revolution in 2009 -- a classic case of the dynamics of engagement -- but he can't find much material to latch on to from recent years. Romney seems to have concluded that while he can still fire broad rhetorical salvos -- "apology tour," "lead from behind" -- on specific issues he has little choice but to agree with the president.

Alas, there are no moral victories, or intellectual victories, or even substantive victories, in presidential elections. The debate likely didn't change voters' minds, and Obama didn't score a knockout, or even a decision on points. Since then, the poll numbers haven't moved Obama's way. It appears that each debate mattered less than the one before. Obama must trust to fate, and the ground game.

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