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?