‘Adapt not prevent’ – the latest argument of the fossil fuel apologists

London in smog April 2014

By Christina Prentice

The UN’s assessment report on the state of climate change back in September 2013 turned out to be a real tactical problem for the fossil fuel vested interests and their political mouthpieces. It found that scientists were 95 per cent sure that humans were causing global warming and that temperatures could rise by up to 4.8C by the end of the century.

The report, coupled by the ‘big freeze’ in the USA and flooding in Britain this winter, has finally made it untenable for all but the most brazen fossil fuel apologists to continue questioning if climate change is happening or if human activity is driving it. In Britain, even the most comfortable climate deniers, the Telegraph and Daily Mail, conceded to a House of Commons committee that climate change was in fact a real problem. And the Spectator has changed it’s editorial position.

But this poses a real problem if you are ideologically or financially wedded to a high carbon future. If you accept the science, that climate change is an urgent threat caused by fossil fuel emissions, then you need to accept the conclusion – that we need to get off fossil fuels and on track for a clean economy asap.

But that would mean one of the most powerful sections of capital being weakened – and this wont be achieved without a serious political fight. So they have shifted to a new line of argument – that we should ‘adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it’. So following on from the Tory environment secretary, Owen Paterson, assuring us that global warming can have a positive side and “is something we can adapt to over time“. The Telegraph’s editorial is devoted to arguing that instead of alarmism, ‘greater thought needs to be given to how mankind might adapt to the climate realities’. Simon Jenkins says that we should move towards “thinking intelligently about how the world should adapt to what is already happening“. And ‘We can adapt to climate change, or we can try to mitigate it. Not both’ says Andrew Lilico formerly of Policy Exchange in the Telegraph and cheerleader of the adaption only path.

Even the UN’s latest report talked only of adaptation pleads the Spectator, deliberately ignoring the fact that last week’s IPCC report was the second in a series and entitled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability”. It will be quickly followed later this month by a third one “Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of climate change”

And yes, capitalism has proved incapable of protecting humanity from climate change. The short-termist vested interests of big capital, locked disproportionately in the fossil fuel industry have used their political muscle to prevent the action needed. Exxon Mobil chose this week to announce that it accepted climate change was real but won’t stop selling fossil fuels. Together they have put profits above the interests of humanity and ensured that some climate impacts are now already being felt will be severe, pervasive and irreversible.

Yes, we will need to find ways to adapt to rising sea levels, more extreme storms, droughts and crop failures. But no amount of adaptation will protect billions of people if we do not put huge effort into preventing further emissions or ‘mitigation’ in the climate change gargon. The difference in terms of impacts of keeping well below 2 degrees average warming and 4.8 degrees is incomparable. What do they envisage?” George Monbiot rightly asks in his excellent article ‘Which bit of the world are you prepared to lose’ “Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? Have they any clue about what this would cost? Of what the impacts would be on the people breezily being told to live with it?”.

It goes without saying that this ‘adapt only’ approach is economically illiterate too. The Stern Review which assessed the economics of climate change made clear that costs of adaptation would eclipse the investment needed to prevent further climate change with a shift to a clean efficient economy.

So once again the brutality of capitalism is laid bare. It is quite unmistakable. It is prepared to abandon large swathes of humanity, the poorest most vulnerable bits first, to rampant climate change in order to keep the super-profits flowing.

Every progressive should take this series of UN climate reports as a call to action. We must not let the fossil fuel apologists turn attention away from urgent task of reducing emissions. ‘Adapt not prevent’ is just the latest excuse to keep the fossil fuel industry in ascendancy. Every tonne of carbon emissions prevented is worth fighting for. It is cities protected, ecosystems preserved, lives saved.