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Learning to live with global warming

Where's the Obama administration's policy on climate change?

The meeting in Geneva this week, which gathered together some 2,500 delegates and 50 invited heads of state from the far corners of the planet, is essentially an admission that some of the nastier effects of climate change are already here, and we might as well learn to live with it.

Abbott is the face of the administration’s policy, but the negotiations at Copenhagen, and the U.S.’s international policy on climate change are actually authored by Todd Stern, who was appointed special envoy on climate change last January.

Stern is heading up the negotiations for Copenhagen, which will decide on the follow up to the Kyoto accords. Copenhagen is being billed by some as the make or break meeting for the future of the planet.

Just how the administration will play Copenhagen is far from  clear.  A major question is how much political capital Obama is prepared to spend on saving the planet while he is struggling to get domestic health reform passed through Congress.  In an interview with GlobalPost, Abbott noted that the president is strongly convinced that legislation is the prerequisite for meaningful change. The major legislation in circulation at the moment is the 946-page Waxman-Markey bill, which would commit the U.S. to begin reducing carbon emissions by 3 percent in 2012, and would eventually reduce them by 80 percent in 2050.  The bill would also require 6 percent of  electricity in the U.S. to be produced from renewable sources by 2012, and that figure would rise to 20 percent by 2020.  The bill passed the House in May, but now faces the Senate, and there is some question about it being put on hold. The death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has further complicated its prospects.

In the meantime, the alternative is to learn how to cope. The operative term at the Geneva meeting this week is “climate services,” a euphemism that covers many things, ranging from early warnings about dangers from floods, raging forest fires and cyclones, to overall emergency preparedness.  

Thomas Karl, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s lead for developing climate services, noted that NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center, which he also heads, is definitely seeing a change in the climate in the U.S.  

The southwest of the U.S. is short of water in general, and in some cases hydroelectric power has been cut and even nuclear power plants have had to curtail operations because there wasn’t enough water to cool them.  Other parts of the country face increased danger of flooding. 

“Many of the nation’s airports are only a foot above sea level,” Karl said.

The longer it takes politicians to deal with the problem, the more “adaptation,” like early warning systems and establishing evacuation procedures, is emerging as the only option available, albeit an expensive one.

“Adaptation was the step child of the process until now,” Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, told the conference here. “Now it is a major pillar. Without it, we won’t have any agreement in Copenhagen at all.”

Maybe so, but the one point that nearly all experts agree on is that adaptation is at best a temporary solution, and time is running out on the larger issue of mitigation.