11/04/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Adapting to Climate Change Does Not Mean Accepting It

At the end of last week a new IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report was leaked projecting that climate change would reduce the world's food productivity throughout this century. We also saw the Obama administration issue an Executive Order on Climate Preparedness as part of its Climate Action Plan. The Obama Climate Action Plan includes elements to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. This Executive Order focuses specifically on the urgent need to adapt to climate change. The order: "directs Federal agencies to take a series of steps to make it easier for American communities to strengthen their resilience to extreme weather and prepare for other impacts of climate change." The president also:

... established a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise the Administration on how the Federal Government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide that are dealing with the impacts of climate change. The Task Force members include state, local and tribal leaders from across the country who will use their first-hand experiences in building climate preparedness and resilience in their communities to inform their recommendations to the Administration.

There is no question that the accumulation of human-created greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has begun to heat the planet and the era of global warming is here. There is also no question that moves such as President Obama's new Executive Order and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $20 billion Climate Resiliency Plan for New York are necessary responses to the growing impact of climate change. But while these actions are necessary, they are by no means sufficient.

Despite the presence of "know nothing" deniers of climate science in the United States Congress, the causes of the climate crisis and the solution to that crisis are known and need to be made an urgent priority in the nation's capital. There are several elements to the solution. First and foremost, we must develop a fossil fuel-free, renewable energy economy. This requires massive public and private investment in basic and applied research and similar investment in infrastructure, such as smart grid technology, that would permit the distributed or decentralized generation of energy. It also requires a focused effort on making our homes, businesses and transportation systems more energy efficient than they are today.

The effort to encourage renewable energy through a carbon tax or a cap and trade based regulatory system has not yet gained political traction. A traditional command and control system of greenhouse gas regulation has begun, but faces a decade of litigation and the certainty of delay. Environmentalists may stop the Keystone Pipeline only to see the Canadians ship the oil by rail or bucket brigade if necessary. The obvious answer is not to attack fossil fuels by making them more expensive, but to promote renewable energy by making it cheaper and more convenient. The business model should be comparable to how the cell phone replaced land lines or how streaming video has made DVDs obsolete. Make fossil fuels unnecessary and irrelevant.

Politics responds to the crisis of the moment. Today, the memory of Hurricane Sandy remains vivid and is a clear force on our political agenda. This is the moment for mobilizing the political world for the changes needed to make our communities strong enough to withstand climate impacts and to rebuild quickly from the damage of extreme weather events. The president's Executive Order is a step in the right direction. But the real work remains.

Like others, I see no reason to trust the president and his team with this task. An administration that doesn't seem capable of launching a health care website does not inspire anyone to think they are capable of the far more complex task of transforming the energy base of the economy. Fortunately, the role required of the federal government is modest. Their key role is to fund the basic science and engineering of renewable energy, battery technology, and smart grids. They then will need to provide a revenue stream (new tax) and capital formation strategy (tax law) to stimulate private investment in new energy infrastructure. America's public and private sectors are capable of achieving this transformation, and in the process could create an export industry capable of transforming the world's energy system. Since climate change is a global problem, America cannot solve the climate problem on its own. But we could do much more than we are doing.

This plan requires determined, persistent and focused leadership. From time to time, President Obama has demonstrated the potential to become such a leader, but overall his performance has not matched his potential. The focus on climate adaptation with its pessimistic projections of future impacts, assumes that our efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions will largely fail. People are being told not to live near coastlines, and to prepare for a future of flood and famine. (Can the locusts and frogs be far behind?)

Projecting the future from current trends is always tricky. At the start of the twentieth century one of New York City's most difficult pollution problems was the presence of horse manure on our streets. In lower Manhattan we were knee deep in the stuff. A few decades later, the internal combustion engine solved that problem (while of course, creating other problems). Climate change is a more difficult problem to understand and solve than horse manure. Horse manure was generated locally and seen and smelled immediately. Even a Tea Party Republican would be unable to deny its cause and effect. By contrast, climate change is caused everywhere and its impact is in the future. It requires more than smell and touch to fully understand.

The urban horse manure problem was not solved by making horses more expensive or by eliminating transportation of people and their goods. It was solved by a technological fix. The climate problem and other environmental problems caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels will only be solved when we develop a less expensive and more effective technology to power our economy.

Free market advocates may argue that Henry Ford didn't require government's help to build the Model T, but of course he did. Without government there would have been no roads to drive cars on and no ports or railroad lines for shipping the raw materials needed to manufacture cars. Government is needed to build infrastructure and to enforce the rules needed to maintain a level playing field for private competition. The infrastructure needs of the 21st century brain-based economy differ from those required during the Industrial Era, but they remain a key function of government. An ideology that refuses to acknowledge the role of government in the economy makes it difficult for government to do what is needed to facilitate the transformation to a renewable economy. A White House more concerned about politics, policy and image, than management fundamentals only compounds the problem.

My view is that the technical breakthroughs needed for this transformation will come. I am counting on human ingenuity coupled with a growing cultural awareness of the need for clean, renewable energy. As early 20th century New Yorkers stepped through the manure in lower Manhattan, they knew that the era of horse-based transportation had reached its limit. Horses worked well in small towns, but created problems in larger cities. We know that a planet with over seven billion people cannot fuel its economy the same way it did when it was as a planet of one or two billion people. We also need to remember that adapting to climate change does not mean that we accept it. We still need to eliminate global warming by reducing the production of greenhouse gases.