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The latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is due out next week. If the leaked draft is reflected in the published report, it will constitute the formal moving on of the debate from the past, futile focus upon "mitigation" to a new debate about resilience and adaptation.
The new report will apparently tell us that the global GDP costs of an expected global average temperature increase of 2.5 degrees Celsius over the 21st century will be between 0.2 and 2 per cent. To place that in context, the well-known Stern Review of 2006 estimated the costs as 5-20 per cent of GDP. Stern estimates the costs of his recommended policies for mitigating climate change at 2 per cent of GDP – and his estimates are widely regarded as relatively optimistic (others estimate mitigation costs as high as 10 per cent of global GDP). Achieving material mitigation, at a cost of 2 per cent and more of global GDP, would require international co-ordination that we have known since the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change simply was not going to happen. Even if it did happen, and were conducted optimally, it would mitigate only a fraction of the total rise, and might create its own risks.
And to add to all this, now we are told that the cost might be as low as 0.2 per cent of GDP. At a 2.4 per cent annual GDP growth rate, the global economy increases 0.2 per cent every month.
So the mitigation deal has become this: Accept enormous inconvenience, placing authoritarian control into the hands of global agencies, at huge costs that in some cases exceed 17 times the benefits even on the Government's own evaluation criteria, with a global cost of 2 per cent of GDP at the low end and the risk that the cost will be vastly greater, and do all of this for an entire century, and then maybe – just maybe – we might save between one and ten months of global GDP growth.
Can anyone seriously claim, with a straight face, that that should be regarded as an attractive deal or that the public is suffering from a psychological disorder if it resists mitigation policies?
The 2014 Budget recognised reality, with the Government now introducing special measures to keep energy prices low for energy intensive firms – abandoning what little pretence remained that it was attempting to prevent climate change by limiting energy use so as to limit CO2 emissions. The new IPCC report – though it remains as robust as ever in saying that there will be climate change and its effects will be material (points that relatively few mitigation policy sceptics deny) – has a marked change of focus from the 2007 report.
Whereas previously the IPCC emphasised the effects climate change could have if not prevented, now the focus has moved on to how to make economies and societies resilient and to adapt to warming now considered inevitable. Climate exceptionalism – the notion that climate change is a challenge of a different order from, say, recessions or social inclusion or female education or many other important global policy goals – is to be down played. Instead, the new report emphasised that adapting to climate change is one of many challenges that policymakers will face but should have its proper place alongside other policies.
Quite so. It has been known since the late 1970s that there would be material warming during the 21st century and we will need to adapt to it. At present, though, in the UK we still carry the legacy of a panoply of enormously expensive but futile policies that were designed to be pieces of a global effort to mitigate that is just not going to happen.
Our first step in adapting to climate change should be to accept that we aren't going to mitigate it. We're going to have to adapt. That doesn't mean there might not be the odd mitigation-type policy, around the edges, that is cheap and feasible and worthwhile. But it does mean that the grandiloquent schemes for preventing climate change should go. Their day is done. Even the IPCC – albeit implicitly – sees that now.