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Adaptation and Mitigation amid the Consequences of Failure

Paul Cox and Stan Cox

Societies once could choose between changing direction or dealing with climatic disaster; now it is necessary to do both at once. The best-laid plans for mitigation would be hard enough to fulfill in a stable climate, but they will be vastly harder in the climate chaos ahead.

Continue reading below the initial portion of this 45-page article: Paul Cox and Stan Cox. 2020. "Adaptation and Mitigation amid the Consequences of Failure." American Journal of Economics and Sociology 79: 651-693.

Full original manuscript:

Abstract cont'd: If simultaneous mitigation and adaptation are still achievable, such a difficult balance cannot also take on the burden of supporting unrestrained economic growth. The failing efforts so far have been dominated by a search for synergistic ways to mitigate, adapt, and grow economies at the same time, while wishing away the predictable trade-offs between these goals. Wealthy polluting countries have enforced this optimistic spirit in international climate debates, in part to counter the language of loss and damage, which they have seen as a direct challenge. Key to their effort has been a reframing of adaptation that flips the focus from the vulnerability of exposed populations to their resilience. However, the reality of implementing plans for resilience is running into problems, and those populations are instead taking up the banner of climate justice. Debt- and disaster-plagued Puerto Rico illustrates both the failure of adaptation and mitigation through growth and the promise of climate justice as a means to articulate other forms of balance.


In October 2018, a year and a month after Puerto Rico lay devastated in the tracks of Hurricane Maria, and just two months after electricity was fully restored, the territorial Senate declared the island’s will to decarbonize. The Energy Public Policy Act would require Puerto Rico to transition to 40 percent renewable energy within seven years, eliminate coal power outright within ten years, and use nothing but renewable energy by 2050 (PREB 2019). Signed into law the following April, it was an extraordinary statement of commitment to climate change mitigation, come what may, from a highly vulnerable place.

This was Puerto Rico, which had just suffered the worst storm in its recorded history, with uncounted thousands of deaths and $90 billion in economic wreckage (Milken Institute 2019; National Hurricane Center 2018). It was a territory with more than $100 billion of public debt, subjugated to a federally appointed austerity board. Anthropogenic climate change had already doubled or tripled the chance of more Maria-scale disasters in each coming year (Keellings and Alaya 2019), and every resident knew that the president who controlled their fate was openly contemptuous of them and would be loath to provide the slightest federal assistance. This wounded and vulnerable island was responsible for only 0.38 percent of U.S. fossil carbon emissions (US-EIA 2019). Nevertheless, with the Energy Public Policy Act, Puerto Rico became a national leader in the ambition to end the use of fossil fuels for generating power.

Puerto Rico’s Act is part of a trend that spans the planet: some of the most vulnerable countries and territories are declaring some of the most drastic actions in the interest of mitigation. To say that their actions are inspiring (or shaming) the rest of the world is not to say that they are a solution. After all, their sacrifices alone are not going to stop the changes that are threatening their destruction. The storms are only going to worsen.

How will Puerto Rico’s transitioning power system hold up if disaster begins to strike repeatedly—then regularly? What if the island can expect no help at all in future disasters, not just because of an antagonistic federal administration, but because other parts of the United States are getting hit just as hard and federal emergency funds are stripped to the bone? How much stress can the island’s ambitious green plans handle? For that matter, how much climate chaos can a national Green New Deal handle, or a global course of action?

Societies once could choose between changing direction or facing catastrophe; now it is necessary to do both at once. Future success will come amid the consequences of past and present failure, or not at all. There are many ideas for post-carbon transitions that would be challenging to pull off in a stable and forgiving climate, but they will be immensely harder in the climate that lies ahead. Here, we review the terms of this historic dilemma.

The framing efforts taking place on every side of international climate debates have persistently codified the challenge as one of balancing mitigation and adaptation, putting vulnerable places like Puerto Rico in the position of carrying both burdens together. This framing has also been persistently optimistic, celebrating the idea of economically rewarding synergies while showing a distaste for potential trade-offs. Yet as the consequences pile up in vulnerable places, the economic case falls apart. The impetus for action in the time of consequences must be forceful; it must upset balance in the name of justice.

Solar Panels in the Wind

Hurricane Maria was an energy crisis. The storm dealt a heavy blow to Puerto Rico’s housing and transportation, but it was the breakdown of the electric power system that became the overriding concern. Loss of power led, in turn, to loss of safe water supplies and access to medical care, accounting for a large share of the storm’s high death toll (Kishore et al. 2018). The island’s power plants and transmission and distribution systems had long been ill-maintained by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. As the utility struggled to survive on decreasing revenue flows, service disruptions, including large-scale blackouts, became more frequent in the years leading up to Maria.

The storm did not, in fact, inflict critical damage on the island’s four large thermal power plants, but it did fell almost 850 transmission towers and 50,000 distribution poles, plunging the island into darkness. An estimated 80 percent of power lines went down. Even two months after the storm, 60 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents remained without power. Restoration of 95 percent of service took more than six months, far longer than had been the case following any other U.S. hurricane since 2004 (Kwasinski et al. 2019).

In October 2019, Puerto Rico’s government took steps toward funding the transformation of the island’s electric power system, announcing a 10-year, $20 billion plan to strengthen the still-fragile grid by putting in buried lines and building aboveground transmission and distribution lines that can withstand winds of 250 km/hr. The network would incorporate eight smaller grids, each of which could function independently if others go down. This classic adaptation effort was shadowed by a nagging worry that future big storms might strike before the decade-long project is complete. Ottmar Chávez, director of Puerto Rico’s Central Office for Reconstruction, Recovery and Resiliency told the press: “We’re not where we would like to be” (AP 2019).

It turned out to be a magnitude-6.4 offshore earthquake in January 2020 that next brought down the grid, revealing just how unpredictable the island’s perilous future is going to be. The feared tsunami did not materialize, and that was especially fortunate for the people of Puerto Rico’s south coast. Approximately half of the island’s emergency sirens, crucial elements of disaster adaptation, had been knocked out of service by Maria and had not been repaired. The government’s emergency management commissioner Carlos Acevedo told the New York Times that the sirens were still down “because insurance companies denied municipalities’ insurance claims” (Ayala et al. 2020).

Researchers at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez have developed much more decentralized plans under which clusters of approximately ten households each would form throughout the island, each group having its own solar photovoltaic generating system with battery storage. These “microgrids” would be integrated with the main power grid, but in the event of any interruption of the main power supply, the microgrids would each operate in isolation (O’Neill-Carrillo and Irizarry-Rivera 2019). Before Maria, Puerto Rico was generating 2 percent of its electricity from wind and solar sources. In the first year and a half of the recovery, the number of rooftop solar installations doubled. Once in place, decentralized solar and wind generation with a more robust, compartmentalized grid would be less vulnerable to a Maria-scale event than the old system is.

Damage is nevertheless to be expected. Maria inflicted serious harm on solar and wind installations in several locations (Kwasinski et al. 2019). Widespread rooftop solar generation, as envisioned in microgrid planning, will be highly vulnerable unless both the equipment and the roofs on which it is installed are capable of withstanding winds at least as strong as Maria’s. It is estimated that 230,000 Puerto Rican residences were damaged by Maria, and countless roofs throughout the island were damaged or lost in the storm (Hinojosa and Meléndez 2018). The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army together distributed approximately 185,000 roof tarps of various kinds, and those were not enough to meet demand (Quiñones 2019). The rebuilding effort must ensure that all construction meets rigorous code requirements and that safe, affordable housing becomes available to all who still live in homes that are not constructed to code.

While such an effort would be an enormous step forward in adaptation terms, a far more dramatic escalation in rooftop solar panels and other non-carbon sources would be necessary to achieve 40 percent renewable electricity by 2025 and the elimination of fossil fuels by 2050, as called for in the mitigation-oriented Puerto Rico Energy Public Policy Act. P.J. Wilson, a solar industry spokesperson, told reporters in 2019: “I don’t think anybody has a clear answer for exactly how to get there” (Gupta 2019). Wilson was speaking about Puerto Rico, but his statement could stand for the whole global question of how sufficiently deep mitigation and sufficiently rapid adaptation will “get there,” simultaneously and under intense pressure from the crises of the present…[cont'd]

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