2017: THE SUMMER OF SAM (Serious Adaptation Motivation)

September 2017


1977 is remembered as the “Summer of Sam”.  North America was fixated on eight shootings in the Bronx that were eventually linked to serial killer David Berkowitz.  In a number of taunting notes to the police and media, Berkowitz called himself “Son of Sam”, Sam being a reference to the owner of a neighbour’s dog whose incessant barking, Berkowitz alleged, ordered him to kill.  Forty years later, we find ourselves at the still-raging tail of another Summer of SAM, with the barking dog of climate crisis taunting us to action.

Notwithstanding the occasional editorial blather to the contrary (and with some notable orange-haired exceptions), the world seems to have achieved a consensus with respect to two important conclusions relating to environmental policy:

  1. The climate is changing; and
  2. Given that it is changing in ways that are largely consistent with what would be expected from rising atmospheric CO2 levels, human activity is a significant contributing factor to that change.

What has proven more challenging in the environmental policy arena is the question of what to do in the face of this consensus.  Well-reasoned arguments can be and have been made that the transformation away from carbon-based energy sources need not be overall damaging to the global economy, but it is also readily apparent that such a transformation will inevitably effect a reallocation of relative wealth between geographies and industries.  This presents a daunting political challenge.  Even individuals as progressive-minded as Rachel Notley and Justin Trudeau know that a policy approach mandating that Alberta’s bitumen must stay in the ground is a non-starter.  All top-down approaches to environmental transformation face the same challenge.

It is not unlike the conundrum the world finds itself in with respect to free trade policies.  The fact that a solution may be demonstrably the right one globally is cold comfort to those jurisdictions and individuals whose local industry relocates in the resulting economic transformation.  The result has been a policy paralysis.  The weather has become like…the weather; everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.  But there is hope that the summer of 2017 has finally moved us onto a more urgent discussion than simply one about weather.

Record heat waves and unprecedented and recurrent floods, hurricanes and wildfires have cost too many lives, disrupted hundreds of thousands more and cost a lot of money.  No single contributing weather event can be linked to climate change; it is, after all, an insidious malevolence, not a sudden insurgent.  But that debate need not be had.  Whether you want to cite global warming, or simply a combination of increased density, more intensive human habitation, inadequate infrastructure or poorly managed industrial and/or development policies, there is no question that these environmental phenomena are occurring in a manner and frequency that are causing more human and economic loss than ever before.  At the very least, every level of government everywhere in the world must concede that adaptation to reduce this carnage is urgent.

Equatorial countries need to invest in cooling centres; flood plains need to be reinforced or evacuated, building resilience, storm drainage and tidal surge barriers in coastal cities need to be improved, forest management policies throughout the world need to be rethought to create barriers to control the spread of wildfires.  This will require massive capital investments.  In Western nations, the role that infrastructure spending can have in re-energizing economic growth and addressing the job losses that have occurred from the globalization of traditional manufacturing have been acknowledged by all.  For those countries of lesser means and greater need of adaptation, nothing less than an adaptation Marshall Plan is called for, except that this one need not, cannot and should not be borne by the US alone.  Regional economic players in Asia, Europe and even the Middle East should shoulder their share of this opportunity.  Yes, you read that right; opportunity.  If you recall the Marshall Plan did not turn out to be losing economic policy for post-WWII America.

Conceding that adaptation is the only public policy approach to the challenge of climate change is not to forego hope of ever remediating the underlying cause of a warming world.  The transformation away from carbon fuels was never going to the product of government policy.  The most dire global impacts of climate change are too long term and the unsettling impacts of forced transformation too sudden to ever find political support.  The technology that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be driven by its immediate and long term commercial value, and will be imposed upon the world by the superiority of its economics.  There will of course be winners and losers in that transformation as well, but no one will have had to vote for their economic displacement or that of their neighbours.

In the meantime, it is time for policymakers to turn to the adaptive solutions to the immediate climate challenges as their first priority.  SAM’s dog is barking, and this time we would be wise to listen and act.

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