Is reality-based thinking holding us back?
Dear Adaptation Mavens,
I know that you two like to think outside the box, so I’d like to get your thoughts on the recent trend to regulate against including climate change or its effects in planning efforts. Seems like this idea is really gaining ground and I want to know if you think it will work. I’m really sick and tired of all the doom and gloom.
Looking out for simple escape routes
The Mavens like innovative thinking and we often encourage people to not just think outside the box but to realize that there is no box.[i] However we often also like people to develop solutions that are not reality-independent—that is we like people to create solutions that may actually work. The key is recognizing when you’re unnecessarily boxing yourself in vs. when you’re ignoring a fundamental physical reality. For example, you might think “I can’t possibly do any climate change work in my community because so many people rely on coal mining for employment.” That is an unnecessary box, and there are several examples of organizations or communities that “should” be hostile to climate change tackling the issue in real and productive ways[ii]. On the other hand, saying we don’t have to adapt to sea level rise because we don’t know whether the rate of sea level rise is going to increase or not is just trying to wish away a physical reality of our world.
We believe our gentle reader is not asking about legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the effect of climate change. We can make this assumption because we haven’t seen any legislation like that lately. We also suspect that this is not legislation to require the incorporation of the reality of climate change into prudent and fiscally sound planning and management, as that wouldn’t really be “regulating against climate change.” Rather, we suspect our reader is inquiring about the ground-breaking legislation being developed in Montana and North Carolina over the past year. The thinking behind these policies is indeed outside the box, but unfortunately it’s also outside the unalterable physical laws of the universe.
First, we’ll consider the plan in Montana. House Bill 549, with the catchy title “AN ACT STATING MONTANA'S POSITION ON GLOBAL WARMING; AND PROVIDING AN IMMEDIATE EFFECTIVE DATE” was introduced in January of last year. It deemed global warming to be “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana,” that “reasonable” CO2 emissions had no effect on the environment and that climate change was natural and had no human influences. We applaud the strategy of “saying it so will make it so.” Unfortunately not everyone in Montana agrees that climate change won’t be a problem, include the State’s Department of Environmental Quality. Some of the potential effects of climate change cited by DEQ include threats to the state’s $190 million per year trout fishery, which is projected to lose substantial habitat over the coming decades[iii]. Even someone who isn’t a tree-hugging (or fish-hugging in this case) environmentalist could argue that this might be detrimental to Montana’s “business climate.” Sadly the bill died in committee last April so we’ll never know if it the physical laws of the universe were willing to take second place to human legislation.
More recently North Carolina has tried to slow the rate of sea level rise by submitting House Bill 819, which arrived a mere three days in advance of the first anniversary of Montana’s bill dying in committee. HB 819, “AN ACT TO STUDY AND MODIFY CERTAIN COASTAL MANAGEMENT POLICIES,” aims to limit the number of governmental bodies allowed to “develop rates of sea level rise” to just one (Division of Coastal Management) and they can only do this by considering historic rates of sea level rise. Presumably this allows coastal development to continue unphased by the rising seas. This bill also indicates that state, county or municipal entities may not develop policies or plans to prepare for sea level rise realities not calculated through retrospective analysis by the Division of Coastal Management. While allowing development in high-risk areas might not seem fiscally prudent the North Carolina government may be on to something. In fact the cost of protecting or moving everything that is built in harm’s way today could become quite the cottage industry for North Carolina in another decade or so. The bill has passed the House and is in committee with the Senate. We’ll just have to wait and see what we can learn from this approach.
It didn’t seem like a necessary topic to cover in high school civics when we took it, but it might be wise to start teaching about the efficacy of legislating alternative realities. We applaud the renewed efforts by these states to create legislation to reduce the threat of climate change, however we worry that our honorable lawmakers may be missing the more effective avenues that have long been available. We look forward to Montana and North Carolina engaging in some reality-based legislation by improving their renewable energy portfolio standards and creating adaptation plans for trout fisheries management and coastal communities.
The Adaptation Mavens
[i] Thanks to Amory Lovins.
[ii] See the case study at http://www.cbt.org/uploads/pdf/CACCI_Elkford_CaseStudy.pdf
[iii] Wegner, S.J. et al. 2011. Flow regime, temperature, and biotic interactions drivedifferential declines of trout species under climate change. PNAS 108(34):14175-14180 http://www.pnas.org/content/108/34/14175.full