A Good Step but Not a Great One

Many environmentalists have long resisted policy initiatives that focus on improving our ability to adapt to a changing climate; the fear has been that such efforts would distract attention from proposals to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully, that dynamic is finally changing, as governments and advocacy groups have increasingly accepted the fact that some degree of climate change is inevitable, and that consequently, the primary goal of climate policy should be to reduce harms to human welfare and the environment, rather than focusing exclusively on the long-term goal of emissions reductions.

The primary goal of climate policy should be to reduce harms to human welfare and the environment, rather than focusing exclusively on the long-term goal of emissions reductions.

Today's proposal from the European Union, therefore, is encouraging — but as with so many other climate policy pledges that have been made in recent days, there may be less here than meets the eye.

Financing for these initiatives is welcome, but the world is still far from thinking through these questions in a coherent manner that would guide sound investments. For instance, Yvo de Boer, the head of the United Nations climate office, wants to spend adaptation money on projects like sea walls and low-carbon energy generation.

The latter, of course, is not adaptation at all, it is merely a means of spending adaption funds on greenhouse gas emissions reductions that will do virtually nothing to help these countries adopt to a warmer world.

Sea walls may well be needed in time, but initially at least, investments in economic development and agricultural adaptation are far more pressing. Adaptation and mitigation need not be set in tension with each other--but rational decisions need to be made about how to distribute resources to each endeavor.

The European Union’s pledge today is a welcome step, but it is only one small step on a long road.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow and the codirector of the Geoengineering Project at AEI.

Photo credit: Marc Webber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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About the Author


  • Samuel Thernstrom has studied and written about environmental issues for twenty years, with a particular emphasis on global climate change. He served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality prior to joining AEI in 2003. As codirector of the AEI Geoengineering Project, Mr. Thernstrom studied the policy implications of geoengineering, or climate engineering. This groundbreaking field of climate science involves changing features of the earth's environment to offset the warming effect of greenhouse gases. He has been published on nytimes.com and in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and he has appeared on BBC News, ABC News, CNN, FOX News, NPR, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

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Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

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