Blog Post

Ounce of Prevention, Pound of Cure, Ton of Bricks

Mar 4, 2014 | Heather L. Ross

Speaking in drought-devastated California last month, President Obama announced that his 2015 budget would include a new $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund to better understand and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Having made limited progress so far in the fight to avoid climate change, we are now heading into the fight to gird ourselves for it. Perhaps adaptation policy and resources will come more easily than mitigation policy and resources have, but they will certainly be more expensive. One billion dollars is a small down payment – just the first step of Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to protect New York City from future storm damage following Hurricane Sandy came to $20 billion.

If there is a will to adapt, what will be the way? Big calls on scarce budgets demand hard choices. One choice is to raise new revenue. Some countries have established national climate funds, drawing on a variety of sources ranging from multilateral contributions to a tax on domestic oil profits. Other approaches to financing climate adaptation include levies on international aviation and maritime transport and issuing bonds through an international financing facility.   Bonds offer a wealth of purpose-built arrangements as to how they are sold and paid off. For example, selected criteria can be used to allocate required purchases to particular parties – people who make money generating harm are obliged to participate in funding to protect against it. The timing and scale of payoffs can be linked to other criteria, such as the achievement of climate-related goals broadly or by the bondholder. Such instruments can be a vehicle for shared commitment and belief in our ability to shape the future – "American Resilience" bonds in the spirit of US War Bonds from an earlier time of threat and fortitude.

If there are resources for adaptation, how will they be used? Much attention has been given to the efficiency and equity of mitigation strategies – who should pay how much under what regimes to reduce carbon emissions. What are the right measures for allocating scarce adaptation dollars? Most threatened? Easiest saved? Least at fault? Biggest bang for the buck? Best politically represented? Greatest ability to pay? Whatever we may think is best, we know what is likely – facing significant direct harm, people who can afford to buy protection will look to purchasing their own first.

But will there be resources? Adaptation is a palliative of escalating cost, and nature a force likely to stay one step ahead. Damage will happen, and that leaves us with a familiar backup policy – disaster relief. Governor Cuomo estimated the cost to repair housing and infrastructure in New York damaged by Sandy at $33 billion; Governor Christie added $29 billion for New Jersey. While Federal disaster declarations and release of recovery funds have an extensive history in the United States, even those funds are facing push back now. It took three months to get a Sandy assistance package through Congress.

Finally, beyond the chain of mitigation, adaptation, and relief lies abandonment, itself costly and unbounded. This is not your grandfather’s future, the whiz-bang, Buck Rogers future of labor-saving-device enabled leisure and self improvement that I grew up with. We have a greater mission now, requiring our best, most cost-effective efforts. We can’t stop a rising sea, but we can stop making the sea rise. We need the strength, character, and long-view of the War Bond generation. It takes a nation.