Climate Protection for All?


Predictions about future economic growth are not the only ones fraught with significant uncertainties. The natural sciences are also susceptible to errors resulting from erroneous predictions – and perhaps with even more dramatic consequences. Epidemiologists, for example, promulgated horror scenarios regarding the fatalities that would result from the impending spread of mad cow disease and swine flu. Afterwards, thank God, we learned that their predictions had been off the mark.

But should we place all our bets on the chance that scientists are mistaken once again when it comes to climate change, simply because their predictions are controversial, even among climate experts? This would be an exceedingly risky strategy. For if the majority of climate experts are proven to be correct and we do nothing, the consequences would be much more costly than if we had decided to undertake some measures ultimately proven to be unnecessary.

When we consider how to surmount the challenges of climate change, we really have only two options available, but they are not mutually exclusive. The prevention strategy is highly favoured currently, and its goal is to prevent climate change in the first place. By contrast, the goal of an adaptive strategy is to minimise the harm that results from climate change as it occurs.

The problem with the prevention strategy arises from the fact that reducing the global increase in temperature represents a global public good – thus, nobody can be excluded from its benefits. This increases the risk of free rider behaviour on the part of nations who, apart from lip service, avoid participating in costly measures for climate protection but nevertheless reap the benefits of efforts made by others. This phenomenon helps to explain why little progress has been made in international climate agreements, as demonstrated by the two past conferences in Cancun and Copenhagen. Indeed, playing a lead role in climate protection entails considerable risks if companies responsible for climate damage simply relocate to countries with weaker environmental regulations. This puts the lead nation in the worst possible situation, as it experiences employment losses while global CO2 emissions remain unchanged. Finally, it is worth pointing out that current CO2 avoidance is characterised by horrendous cost inefficiencies. Indeed, the introduction of trading in emissions certificates is commendable, but essentially, it renders a variety of other measures redundant, including subsidies for solar energy, not to mention absurd regulations concerning light bulbs.

The adaptive strategy has the advantage of generating local public goods, as the construction of dykes, flood channels, and wastewater canals primarily benefits the region involved. Sometimes adaptive strategies even have the character of a private good, such as when homeowners take steps to prevent storm damage. The local public or private nature of adaptation strategies would presumably be associated with an increase in the acceptance of their costs. However, many nations, including a number of African countries or Bangladesh, would be affected with particular severity by drought or flood-related catastrophes, and some nations would even sink beneath the seas – a fact that the 83 Pacific islands of Vanuatu have been imploring us not to forget. Developed nations cannot and should not turn a deaf ear to their calls for help.

Thus, preventive and adaptive strategies are not mutually exclusive. Yet the extent to which each strategy should be pursued depends on the chances of a new international climate agreement being signed. If recent experience is any guide, skepticism in this regard is advised. Consequently, Germany should rely more upon an adaptive strategy. If other nations enter into the negotiations with a similar attitude, this may induce hold-out nations to sign on to an effective agreement. Be that as it may, the pursuit of an adaptive strategy cannot be disparaged as a product of sheer cowardice or egotism.