Climate (Policy) Adaptation

This morning’s Washington Post contained two articles that caught my eye. Both should be interesting to readers of this blog.

The first, by Juliet Eilperin, focused on the U.N. climate talks getting underway in Durban, South Africa. Eilperin pointed out the 1997 Kyoto protocol – only fifteen years on – is becoming less relevant to the world’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or at least to slow their rate of increase. [You may recall that the United States never signed the Kyoto protocol, and that the treaty didn’t cover India and China. Just a few holes there…] What’s replacing the Kyoto agreement? A fragmented set of country-by-country measures, under the label of “nationally appropriate mitigation actions.”

Might not seem like much.

But it turns out that when people tote up these individual, uncoordinated cuts, according to some estimates they’ll get us as close as 2/3 of the way to holding the temperature rise by the end of this century to 20 Celsius.

Not bad…if individual nations actually hold firm and realize these targets.

The second, by Robert Barnes, appeared on the Fed Page, and discussed a Supreme Court case that pits a utility operating three hydroelectric plants against the state of Montana. The issue? Who owns the riverbeds. At stake, $50M in back rents. Years ago, the Supreme Court determined that states own the riverbeds of waterways that were judged to be navigable at the time they attained statehood. For the waterways in question, lawyers are going back as far as the Lewis and Clark expedition records – each side parsing the journals and (this’ll come as a huge surprise!) finding quotes and interpretations supporting their contrary, diametrically opposed views. Barnes started the article by referring to a quip attributed to Justice Alito last term in a case involving the sale of violent video games to minors. He asked whether Justice Scalia had been able to determine what James Madison had thought of the question.

So, in one case, governments are attempting to adapt climate change policy in response to current, shifting societal realities, as these evolve. In the second, governments are attempting to resolve a case based on policies that are essentially on autopilot, with settings that have remained unchanged for more than a century.

This calls to mind the premise of one of my favorite books, High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them, by J.F. Rischard, a former vice president of the World Bank. Published in 2003, this book looks more prescient with every passing year. Rischard argued that the world is experiencing growing stresses, occasioned by two major trends: growing populations, especially in countries least able to accommodate them, and the globalization of commerce. He pointed out that as these trends have intensified, governments have attempted to flat-line the governing policy framework. He said that while governments once upon a time performed a useful social function by providing much-needed stability, that today these approaches act more like a strait jacket.

Instead, what’s needed in a world marked by extraordinary social change and technological advance is a policy framework that is a bit more adaptive…somewhere in between relying solely on what the Founding Fathers happened to foresee, and changing direction willy-nilly in the face of each slight breeze of change or cultural preference.

The two headlines and the contrasting stories in today’s Washington Post capture some of this ambivalence. Expect a lot more of such duality going forward! Whatever your job or role, be prepared to devote a lot of your best thinking to choosing between these two approaches to policy. Few absolutes here! Mostly shades of grey. And yet…

…How well the world turns out will depend a great deal on your ability (and mine, ours) to chart a middle course in your (my, our) area of responsibility.

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