In recent years, the debate over climate change has centered on greenhouse gas emissions, which have been linked by scientists to rising global temperatures. But after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, underscoring the importance -- and vulnerability -- of critical infrastructure systems, many policy makers and environmentalists began to shift their attention to climate change adaptation strategies.
To help advance the debate, the Bridgespan Group has released a report, How Philanthropy Can Help Communities Advance Climate Change Adaptation (12 pages, PDF), that examines the funding environment for these strategies and offers a number of suggestions for foundations looking to support adaptation efforts in a post-Sandy context. Recently, PND spoke with Bob Searle, a partner in Bridgespan's Boston office and co-author of the report, about the impact of Sandy on the climate change debate, the tradeoffs between mitigation and adaptation, and some of the things foundations can do to advance the debate.
Philanthropy News Digest: The climate effects of a warming planet had been predicted long before An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006. Why has it taken so long for the discussion about climate change to get serious?
Robert Searle: I think there are two primary reasons, and they are interconnected. The first is that all science involves an element of uncertainty, and climate science is no exception. There are elements of the climate situation that are quite certain. For example, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing, and that increase has led to a general warming of the planet. There are other aspects that are less certain and open to interpretation and judgment; for example, whether human activity is the major cause of these changes, and what the environmental and social impact of climate change will be.
And this is where the second reason comes in: The biggest source of greenhouse gases is the burning of fossil fuel, and the global economy is based on fossil fuels. In other words, there are incredibly strong vested interests in not making the explicit connection between man-made greenhouse gases and the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Those vested interests will naturally seize on any element of uncertainty to argue against change that will threaten economic development, especially when the economy is already shaky.
One mistake that the environmental community has made is to allow itself to be painted as anti-people and anti-economic development on the climate issue. There was a great article in the Fall 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled "Climate Science as Culture War," by Andrew Hoffman, that speaks to some of these points.