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Adaptation to Climate Change Means Economic Adaptation Too

02/04/2014 10:40 BST | Updated 01/06/2014 10:59 BST

The thirty-ninth session of the International Panel on Climate Change is meeting in Japan, hot on the heels of a heavily-leaked draft report. Depending on what you read, you will be alerted again to the mounting evidence that climate change is here, or treated to a coordinated backlash against the IPCC's methodology and motives. A key phrase used in the report is that choices made in the next few years will affect the risks of climate change. Remember that phrasing as warmists and denialists argue over the next few weeks. While the issue is often presented as massive changes happening or on the way, it is the complex interactions of many choices over time, and the uncertainty presented by these, that is the real issue.

An early article piqued my interest. The right-wing economist Andrew Lilico argues that although climate change is real (a departure in view from other Telegraph writers), the costs have been widely overestimated or are unknowable. So there is no reason to suggest why climate change should be a higher priority than 'recessions or social inclusion or female education', for example.

Lilico identifies the shift from mitigation to softer calls for adaptation - a change he attributes to the realisation that mitigation would be too expensive and suppressive of human freedom. He highlights, particularly, the change in language in IPCC reports as an implicit admission that an authoritarian power-grab by unnamed 'global agencies' on climate change just won't work.

This is a new conservative line on climate change, at least in Europe (the FreedomWorks and Tea-Party right in America still considers climate change to be a fraud.) The goal is to redefine the issue as pragmatic conservatives taking a business-like approach to climate adaptation, in order to save society from lefty efforts that would doom both the climate and the economy by a misjudged and futile focus on mitigation.

Another curiously resurgent talking point on the right is that population control is the best adaptation that can be made to prepare for climate change. This conveniently shifts the focus away from the rich world onto the poor; as always when an injustice occurs the conservative instinct is to blame the victim for not getting out of the way. The problem of sustainability can be re-spun as a problem of feckless brown people having too many babies, just as inequality can be re-spun as lazy poor people holding back the productive rich. (The noted statistician Hans Rosling has largely debunked the runaway population growth argument.)

Conservatives wish to pull the wool over our eyes and pretend that there is a third scenario so that we do not have to choose between unrestrained capitalism and environmental sustainability: a world where poor people stop having babies. Because rather than relying on their children to take care of them in old age (as every society in history has done until the advent of old age pensions) poor people will instead get off of their lazy behinds and become internet entrepreneurs, if only freed from the shackles of the state.

So when conservatives talk about overpopulation, environmentalists and their allies on the left can console themselves that even if they are not yet winning the political battles, they are winning the argument by forcing conservatives to concede that the next few decades cannot play out in the way that the last few did.

Talking of overpopulation is an acknowledgement that current economic organisation - that conservatives, libertarians and so-called 'free' marketeers are so desperate to cling too - is heading towards a massive cliff if western consumption habits are extended to the poor of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Better to choke off demand for food, oil and minerals, than to admit that the greater problems facing the world are problems of supply.

This isn't to say that conservatives are involved in a plot to keep poor people poor; and it certainly isn't about race. I believe that conservatives genuinely want Malawi to be as wealthy as Norway one day, they just don't accept that there are alternative ways to get there to the so-called free market (an economic model that has a short history, a very mixed record, and that does not honestly explain how rich countries like the UK, France or the US actually became so.)

You would think that sustainability would be an issue that would resonate with conservatives. Preserving what works; prudent management of resources; focusing on the need of the whole, rather than of particular groups; respect for institutions; belief in the idea that the social contract runs as a thread from the past through the present and to future generations.

But if this recession has shown anything, it is that conservatives (and the Conservative Party specifically) believe only in defending the power of capital. While conservatives may talk about, and genuinely believe, that protecting the environment is not only a moral imperative but also a necessary means of protecting business, sustainability only comes up in terms of sustaining the economic status quo.

It is hard to over-state how enormously successful this approach is. After a global recession brought about by very conservative ideas of incentivising financial services at the expense of the rest of the economy, the right still claims with a straight face that the answer to both sustainability and economic organisation is more conservatism.

We have a sustainability crisis, and it has nothing to do with poor people having too many babies, or even with burning too much oil or cutting down too many trees. We have a sustainability crisis because of an economic model that says growth is the only solution to the world's problems, that exponential demand will be met by exponential innovation, and that modern capitalism is not only the best solution on offer but the only solution. Family planning did not cause this sustainability crisis, and neither did foreign aid. An economic system that uses resources at a faster rate than they can be replaced or substituted, and that sees economics as entirely insulated from the natural systems on which it is premised, is not sustainable despite what its defenders say.

Choices made in the next few years will affect the risks of climate change. If conservatives are right, and adapting to climate change is a better strategy than mitigating it, this has to start with adapting our economies - the source of unsustainable environmental change.