Saturday, April 5, 2014

Climate Change Adaptation and Issue Salience

I recently listened to a great On Point podcast with geographer and author Jared Diamond about environmental challenges. He made some interesting points on the topic of climate change that really made me curious about the current academic literature exploring the connection between climate change adaptation as a process and the salience of the issue in the media, policy institutions, and individuals.

Climate change adaptation is basically the process by which social institutions reduce the net human costs of negative climate change effects. This is distinct from mitigation, which tries to reduce the effects themselves, and resilience, which tries to reduce the costs of adaptation by preemptively modifying institutional arrangements.

For a huge number of reasons, significant action by the federal government on the mitigation front is unlikely. The most likely climate change scenario is a somewhat boring adaptation process by which everybody muddles through, with some winners (regions, communities, businesses, and individuals providing solutions to climate change problems) and some minor losers (regions, communities, businesses, and individuals that are insulated from climate change problems) and some big losers (regions, communities, businesses, and individuals that are highly exposed to climate change problems). By and large the last two groups are separated by economic power: access to money and resources makes adaptation easy (buying a new home, paying higher air conditioning bills etc.), while lack of money makes it difficult (and painful).

This leads me to my question: if the climate change adaptation process does little to disrupt existing social cleavages (rich vs poor, educated vs uneducated etc.) and results in little absolute reduction in the wellbeing of social elites, what are the prospects for the issue's salience going forward? We tend to assume that climate change will effect everyone personally, and thus everyone will notice its negative effects and care about the issue. But under very optimistic adaptation scenarios, might there be a dimension of blowback whereby only low-power, low-status groups notice or care about the issue?

I tend to think the concept of environmental inequality is slightly incoherent, and what's really important are the absolute environmental capabilities of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. But the interaction between adaptation and issue salience is one potential example of the pattern of environmental capability being important.

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