Presented with the massive problem of climate change (including the possibility of extremely severe impacts) states with set resources and capabilities must choose between different kinds of responses:
- Domestic actions to reduce emissions
- Domestic actions to enhance sinks
- Funding emission reductions elsewhere
- Funding sink enhancement elsewhere
- Investing in resilience, either general (emergency response) or specific (engineering measures to combat certain expected effects)
- Helping others invest in resilience: either as compensation for past emissions, an inducement to take action, or out of compassion
- Investing in future mitigation technologies
- Amassing resources and waiting for greater certainty about what will happen
Choosing between these is very challenging and, realistically, we cannot expect governments to rationally and explicitly choose a strategy. Rather, an overall approach will emerge as a combination of semi-overlapping elements: some reinforcing one another and some conflicting. Furthermore, many choices will be made for non-climatic reasons. If we can spend $X in Canada, cut Y emissions, and employ 1,000 Canadians, we might find that option preferable to spending $X elsewhere to eliminate 100Y in emissions.
Multiple axes of uncertainty – about economic and technological development, future resource availability, total and regional climate change impacts, etc – further complicates the problem of prioritization. Economic analyses like the Stern Review argue that investing in mitigation urgently is a better choice than waiting or investing primarily in adaptation. Unfortunately, that is also the strategy with the most barriers. It requires taking somewhat costly action now, at a time when other states have not necessarily committed to equivalent behaviours.
Thankfully, there is the possibility that early action will have a signalling effect, showing that climate change mitigation is achievable at an acceptable cost, and that significant co-benefits can arise, such as advancing the transition towards a sustainable energy system built on renewables.