Should we focus our efforts on slowing future climate warming (mitigation) or preparing for future climate warming (adaptation), or both? The question is rife with political and practical complexities. I’m sure we’ll have many occasions to discuss them soon. But I want to try to put the politics and practicalities aside for a moment and discuss some purely moral aspects of the debate. It’s quite an interesting ethical situation, worthy of some head-scratching and navel-gazing from the academic set.

It's in our hands

Consider the simple fact that greenhouse gases do not remain localized where they are emitted; they disperse throughout the atmosphere. A unit of GHG is a unit of GHG, no matter its origin. You might conclude, then, that emitting GHG harms everyone on earth equally and reducing emissions helps everyone on earth equally. That means emissions reductions are altruistic — the economic benefits of emitting GHGs are local, while the climatic benefits of reducing emissions are global.

But that actually understates the altruism of emission reductions. In practice, climate warming does not harm everyone equally. Its costs fall most heavily on particular regions: the Arctic, southern Africa, Asian river deltas, small islands states in the Pacific, etc. These regions tend to be home to poor and developing economies, those least likely to be able to weather the changes. So when we in the U.S. reduce our emissions, we are primarily helping the world’s poor and only secondarily helping ourselves.

It’s hard to think of any other public policy with broad support that is similarly altruistic (see: our anemic foreign aid budget). Indeed, I sometimes think that the broad support building for climate change mitigation is due in part to the fact that people haven’t really noticed its altruistic nature yet.

Contrast that to adaptation. Adaptation is, almost by its very nature, local. Resettling a group of people away from a coastline benefits that group of people. Shifting to water-conserving agricultural techniques in India helps Indians. Building a seawall helps those behind the seawall.

Of course this isn’t categorically true. It may be that water-saving agricultural techniques could be developed and then exported. It may be that the U.S. will donate money and expertise to people in Asian river deltas, to help them prepare for more frequent floods. To some extent, methods of adaptation developed one place can help people in other places, if policies are set up to encourage knowledge- and capital-sharing.

But the fact remains that while adaptation may in some limited circumstances be altruistic, mitigation is intrinsically altruistic.

What conclusion should we draw from this fact? That’s when you get back into politics, I suppose. I’m inclined to think that self-preserving policies like adaptation are inevitable; especially once climate change’s impacts start becoming severe for people in the U.S., you can bet that politicians will scramble to answer the demand for adaptive policies. While it might be nice to think that the resources and attention we’ll inevitably direct toward adaptation will not deplete the resources and attention we’ve put toward mitigation, realistically that seems inevitable.

Which is to say, we’ve got a window of time here in the U.S. — time when public concern about global warming is high, but the impacts are not yet so severe as to drive more reactive, self-preservation-focused policies. We’ve got a window of time in which it may be possible to put in place policies which primarily benefit the world’s poor and future generations. Such times are rare; such policies are rare. In my mind, we should take advantage of this window while it is open.

(This discussion leaves aside those policies that serve both goals — mitigation and adaptation. Obviously we should be actively seeking out and supporting such policies. But that subject is worthy of its own post.)