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Let them eat … climate adaptation

As a response to global warming, adaptation alone will not suffice.

A drought affected corn crop is seen near Paris, Missouri

It’s now official: The drought of 2012 is a national disaster. Late last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared natural disasters in more than 1,000 counties across 26 states. As NBC’s Brian Williams put it, Americans are now experiencing “the worst drought in a quarter century.”

That’s a reference to the great drought of 1988. According to a 2006 study by the U.S. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the 1988 drought and heat wave caused more than 5,000 deaths, and cost more than $61 billion (in 2005 dollars) in crop and livestock damages. It’s too soon to say whether the cost of this summer’s drought and heat wave — which is estimated to have already caused losses of around 2 billion bushels of corn and soybeans — will match the destruction of 1988. Let’s hope not.

Global warming will make droughts more frequent and more severe. It’s no coincidence that our current period of extreme dryness follows the warmest 12-month period since U.S. records began in 1895. Recall our warm winter, followed by the summer-like weather in March, followed by the record-smashing June/July heat wave — a string of statistical outliers that would be unlikely in the absence of global warming.

How unlikely? The NCDC estimates the likelihood as less than one in a million (while skeptics peg the odds closer to one in 100,000).

Denial no more

Faced with this damning evidence, ExxonMobil looked at its cards and decided to fold. In late June, the company publicly acknowledged that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet. Here’s the statement by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson,  speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations:

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“Clearly there’s going to be an impact. So I’m not disputing that increasing CO2 emissions in the atmosphere is going to have an impact. It’ll have a warming impact.”

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the remarkable nature of this statement. ExxonMobil is one of the largest carbon polluters in the world, and the company has an obvious interest in maximizing future sales of oil. The fact of anthropogenic global warming runs counter to that interest.

So Tillerson’s statement is, in legal parlance, a “statement against interest.” (Interestingly enough, the law grants such statements a heightened level of credibility, since when a person lies, it’s usually in a way that advances its interests.)

Why would ExxonMobil tacitly admit to its role in destabilizing the relatively benign climate conditions that have existed over the last 10,000 years?

Because the truth can set you free.

Lessens risk

More specifically, disclosure of a “material fact” can free a publicly traded company from the risk of large-scale shareholder litigation.

This disclosure will come in handy for ExxonMobil when and if the great carbon bubble pops. That’s the scenario where equity markets suddenly downgrade stock prices in light of the realization that oil companies may be prevented from selling $20 trillion worth of their fossil-fuel reserves. At which point the key question will be: Did oil companies mislead their investors about the existence of that risk?

After his prepared remarks, someone put the scenario to Tillerson explicitly:

“You know, if we burn all these reserves you’ve talked about, you can kiss future generations good-bye. … So what are you going to do about this?”

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In response, Tillerson questioned the ability of climate scientists to predict future climate impacts with precision. In other words, from the company’s perspective, it’s not certain that ExxonMobil’s current business plan will lead to widespread disaster. It’s more of an open question.

Risk mitigation for the 99 percent?

Having proactively reduced its legal liability, what is ExxonMobil’s suggested approach to reducing the physical risk that climate change imposes on the rest of us? Instead of risk mitigation (aka prevention), Tillerson suggests adaptation:

“[W]e believe [the] consequences [of global warming] are manageable. They do require us to begin to exert — or spend more policy effort on adaptation.”

Which brings us back to this summer’s drought. How does Tillerson suggest that farmers adapt?

“[M]ove crop production areas around.”

Tillerson did not explain how much that would cost. Or who would be stuck with the bill. Or when, or how often crops should move, or to where — all major challenges, especially given Tillerson’s concerns about the imprecise nature of climate projections.

ExxonMobil’s self-serving over-reliance on the concept aside, climate adaptation is of course necessary. And the more proactive our adaptation efforts, the better.

But adaptation alone will not suffice. Apart from the fact that it’s much more expensive than preventing warming in the first place, it’s also difficult to see how an adaptation-only approach could provide humanity with the level of comfort to which it has become accustomed.

Ross Abbey works on active transportation, vehicle electrification, and lowering the barriers to rooftop solar PV at Fresh Energy. He holds a J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University in College Station.