A New Climate Narrative: Climate Resilience

President Obama has firmly placed climate change on his agenda for his second term. There is no doubt that this president and members of his administration believe that climate change is a fundamental challenge of our time and that it must be dealt with for the good of posterity. His remarks about climate change in his second inaugural address show that the president’s thinking on this issue is not so very different from the beliefs that he came into office with in 2009. However, that does not mean that the administration’s strategy for dealing with climate change is the same as it was four years ago. In fact, there may be a world of difference between the cap and trade, clean energy oriented architecture that was pursued so aggressively during the first year of the Obama administration and the policies pursued on climate change this time around. The world is different than it was four years ago and a new approach is warranted. Perhaps the hardest task in determining what is possible in the realm of climate policy, is finding a way to get the conversation started. Where do you begin on an issue that is so politically charged in an era that is so politically divisive?

The country needs a new climate narrative. One that is accessible to people in its concepts and its application. One that makes room for the idea that very serious people have doubts about our ability to meet some of the near and long-term emissions reduction goals but also that an equal number of serious people think that the only way to find out how far we can get toward achieving those goals is to try harder. The narrative must recognize that our funds are limited today, but that certain investments can improve our standing overall down the road. The narrative must incorporate actions that could yield multiple benefits for the environment, the economy, and security. The narrative must lead to a strategy that seems less like a Hail Mary pass and more like deliberate plan that takes into account a range of possible outcomes and uncertainties.

Over the last several months the theme of climate resilience has emerged as a good starting point. For those in the environmental community this is a familiar term but it is not as familiar for people outside those circles. The basic idea is that we need to prepare society for a world in which the climate is changing and impacts will continue to be felt. In order to prepare for these impacts we need to evaluate our infrastructure (roads, bridges, homes, offices, energy infrastructure, land-use practices) and ask whether they can adapt to the changing dynamics of weather, rainfall, temperatures, or storms, or bounce back from their effects. This is the question people in New Jersey and New York are asking post-Hurricane Sandy, it’s the question that Texas planners are asking about water use, and forest managers are asking about the endless fires in recent years out west.

However, climate resilience is more than adaptation. It also means looking at the current infrastructure and figuring out whether we can invest in new technologies and new facilities to make them more efficient so they use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency prepared a special report on the energy and emissions savings that could come from a stronger focus on energy efficiency. They found that with more aggressive energy efficiency policies growth in total primary energy demand between now and 2035 could be cut in half with the commensurate emissions savings and economic benefits. In short, climate resiliency is about how to improve our ability to withstand and bounce back from the impacts of a changing climate but also provide opportunity for investment in more efficient and more diverse technology and infrastructure that will help us reduce emissions.

It may be an unsatisfying vision for those in the climate community who want to see more aggressive action today, but it may ultimately be more representative of what is possible in the near-term and may lead to bigger things down the road.

Moving this vision forward in the United States requires that we find ways to make it implementable in the current context, one of fiscal constraints, political divisiveness, abundant domestic hydrocarbons, a shaky economic recovery, ongoing geopolitical dynamism, and immense international environmental pressure to increase U.S. ambition to action on climate change.

The way forward is clear in some regards and more complicated in others. Coupling energy efficiency, economic productivity, and clean energy technology funding with infrastructure upgrades as a matter of economic stimulus could be a well-respected area of potential compromise but requires some broader agreement on how to move forward with domestic spending issues (most things do though). One could envision an energy trade promotion agenda that helped companies access the growing markets in developing economies around the world with efficient and cleaner (not just renewable) energy technologies that could help mobilize emissions reduction and resilient infrastructure while spurring new competitive opportunities for U.S. energy companies.

Challenges remain even with those opportunities. How do we build up enough near-term action in the United States to enable us to drive the necessary global collective action on climate change? The international climate talks have moved toward a post-2020 timeframe which may help to shift focus, but the road between now and 2015 is long and global momentum on this issue may dissipate or grow less productive without a clear direction for progress.

How does the newfound energy abundance brought about by domestic unconventional oil and gas resources fit in with this vision of a climate resilient nation? There is ample opportunity to embrace both the unconventional revolution and climate resiliency through investments in technologies and crafting policies that encourage platforms that use conventional resources today but drive towards emissions reduction pathways for the future. In order to do this we need to lay the groundwork for a more honest conversation about what the world might look like if we don’t meet the previously sacrosanct global targets for emission reduction (two degrees of warming) and what good can be gained from a world in which we tried and failed to meet that target, but achieved a more resilient built environment and deeper emissions reductions than we would have if we never tried at all. The irony is that this is not at all the vision espoused by much of the environmental community, but it may very well be the best way to drive near-term action.

These are not easy questions but they are the questions that the president has raised by making climate change a priority in his second term. The real challenge that lies ahead is finding a plausible narrative on climate change that makes the next steps towards concrete action possible.

Sarah O. Ladislaw is co-director of the Energy and National Security Program and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program