The Trouble With Climate Adaptation

From wildfire ash on solar panels to concrete-heavy desalination, we’re running into problems of climate malmitigation and maladaptation.

Anna Maghradze for Noema Magazine

Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. Her new book is “The Fight For Climate After COVID-19” (August 2021).

When I was in the Obama White House, I observed a climate problem that is globally pervasive. Policymakers are quick to embrace engineering solutions over nature-based ones. For example, their first instinct is often to build a wall to protect against rising sea levels as opposed to restoring natural features, such as wetlands or mangrove forests that act as buffers. This is true even though nature-based solutions also provide sinks to store harmful carbon emissions, thus helping to curb rising temperatures.

In contrast, producing the concrete and steel used to construct engineered solutions consumes massive amounts of water and adds more carbon to the atmosphere, which, in turn, leads to further temperature rise. In other words, the engineering solutions can result in maladaptation.

In 2014, leaders gathered at the White House to discuss ways to combat the drought that gripped the American West. The Obama administration, which had already staked its climate ambitions on leading internationally on both adaptation and mitigation, wanted to create an initiative centered on fresh water, including its dwindling availability in some parts of the country. Specifically, the administration wanted to demonstrate to the American public its commitment to improving drought response.

Not long after policymakers had settled into their seats around a conference table in the White House’s Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a voice asked, “What about desal?” “Desal” refers to desalination, a process that can ease water woes by transforming salt or brackish water into potable water. Desal would allow communities to tap into the limitless supply of ocean water along the coastline of the western United States. It would alleviate the water stress from climate-worsened drought. In placing a bigger bet on desalination, the United States would join a group of water-starved countries that had already turned to the process.

“Their first instinct is often to build a wall to protect against rising sea levels as opposed to restoring natural features, such as wetlands or mangrove forests that act as buffers.”

Large-scale desalination plants began cropping up in the 1960s. Since then, use of the technology has exploded. Over 18,000 plants in 140 countries now dot the globe, according to the International Desalination Association. Saudi Arabia and Israel have made deep investments in the process. So too has Australia, which went on a desalination plant building spree after the “no more” moment — a particularly devastating extreme event that spurs communities to take decisive climate action — of the “millennium drought” desiccated southern portions of the country in the 2000s. An estimated 300 million people worldwide rely on desalinated water for some or all of their daily needs.

Backers of the process press the allure of an inexhaustible flow of fresh water in drought-prone coastal regions. Inland promoters push the use of brackish water to create potable liquid gold. North Africa and the Middle East are projected to have experienced an estimated annual 7 to 9% growth in desalination installations since 2016. The city of Carlsbad, California opened the largest plant in the Western Hemisphere in 2015. It treats about 100 million gallons of seawater daily, turning it into 50 million gallons of drinkable water, which provides approximately 10% of the water for 3.1 million people in the area. The water from desalination does not necessarily come cheap, however. The Carlsbad plant’s water cost twice as much as other sources and impacts the environment negatively in multiple ways.

When desalination was first proposed as a solution at the White House meeting, the discussion did not touch on a factor that affects the other side of the climate coin — greenhouse gas emissions. Existing desalination systems use astounding amounts of energy. It takes about 10,000 tons of oil per year to desalinate 1,000 cubic meters of water (1,000,000 liters or 264,000 gallons) per day. Going forward, choices about desalination, especially in the Middle East, could have profound effects on global emissions.

“Desalination as an adaptation strategy contributes to future warming, which, in turn, will add to water scarcity.”

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that from 2019 to 2040, the Middle East will increase its production of desalinated water 14-fold. The Middle East is among the driest regions in the world with some of the most water-scarce countries. The area already houses 70% of the world’s desalination plants. In addition, it has vast gaps between renewable water supplies and demand, with some countries drawing down water reserves faster than they can be replenished. Demand for water will only swell as populations grow and urbanize, making alternative means of acquiring water all the more urgent.

To the extent that the plants rely on fossil fuels for energy, desalination as an adaptation strategy contributes to future warming, which, in turn, will add to water scarcity. Consider Saudi Arabia. Flush with fossil fuel energy but little fresh water, the Saudis possess close to a fifth of the world’s desalination capacity. Using 300,000 barrels of oil a day, the country devotes 25% of its domestic oil and gas production to powering desalination plants. That figure could rise to 50% by 2030, according to UN estimates, if the country does not switch to more sustainable energy sources.

Desalination consumes about 0.4% of the world’s energy supply already, with only 1% of desalinated water produced from renewable energy sources as of 2013. The plants additionally pose environmental challenges, leaving a gallon of briny water for every gallon of fresh water produced. If dumped back into the ocean in a concentrated area, that briny water can negatively impact marine life, further imperiling ocean health.

“The builders of these nuclear plants did not consider worsening climate extremes in their design, construction, maintenance and operation.”

The idea of promoting desalination never picked up steam during the Obama administration. Instead, the White House chose to promote a package of programs to alleviate drought immediately while promoting long-term drought resilience planning, including greater water conservation. President Obama signed an executive order developed by my team at the National Security Council that required federal agencies to assist state and local officials with drought management by sharing data, information and research; communicating drought risks posed to critical infrastructure; bolstering capacity for drought preparedness and resilience; and supporting efforts to conserve and make efficient use of water. As climate change reduces freshwater availability, however, desal will continue to attract the attention of policymakers seated around countless other conference tables across the globe as a possible solution.

When it does, policymakers should recognize the risk that some adaption measures could derail emissions reduction efforts and instead identify approaches that do not create more carbon pollution. Policymakers could, for example, re-examine whether water conservation measures, such as the reuse of wastewater or “toilet to tap” processes, treatment of stormwater runoff, collection and storage of rainwater, restoration of ecosystems to better retain water, and improved irrigation to lessen evaporation, are better solutions for reducing water scarcity than desalination.

If communities still want to go forward with adaptation solutions involving steel and concrete, like building a desal plant, they need to look for ways to use clean energy to power the facility. A 2016 study of a pilot program in Abu Dhabi found that solar-powered desalination was up to 75% more energy efficient than the fossil-fueled technology then used in the rest of the United Arab Emirates. Dubai has decided to go big with solar-powered desalination. It has plans to produce over 300 million gallons of potable water per day using solar energy at an estimated savings of $13 billion by 2030. The city of Perth in Australia has turned to wind power for its desalination plant. Whatever choices communities, businesses and nations make going forward to address climate extremes or to cut emissions, they should examine both sides of the climate coin and continue to search for a win/win.

“The seawater used to cool the nuclear units had become too warm — something the plant’s designers had surely never imagined.”

Neglecting to consider both mitigation and adaptation can lead to unfortunate, and costly, climate surprises when it comes to choices for cutting emissions. Take the energy sector. Natural shocks, such as floods, storms and drought, already cause 44% of power outages in the United States and 37% in the European Union, upending economic activity and plunging communities into darkness. New climate conditions — heat waves, water stress, “rain bombs” and sea-level rise — occurring with greater frequency and severity will test existing energy infrastructure. When energy system planners focused on reducing emissions do not factor in new climate extremes, they can inadvertently create new risks to power generation and even human safety. Consider how the failure to account for climate extremes can curtail nuclear power generation or dim solar energy’s effectiveness.

As of 2020, the world had more than 440 operating nuclear plants. The reactors provide approximately 10% of the world’s electricity and about 30% of all low-carbon power. As nations look for ways to hold the total average global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), international energy organizations — including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the American Nuclear Society, the European Nuclear Society, the World Nuclear Association and the IEA — have touted nuclear power as green. Extending the service life of these older plants could cement a cost-effective opportunity to maintain low-carbon energy capacity, or at least that’s what nuclear energy proponents argue.

Just as it is often less expensive to repair than to buy new, extending the service life of a nuclear power plant is way cheaper than constructing a new one. Indeed, in advocating for the long-term extension of existing plants, the IAEA asserts that, on a technical level, “most existing reactors could be safely operated until they are 60 years or older.” In the absence of extensions, it predicts sharp declines in existing nuclear capacity by 2030 in North America and Europe and the retirement of all existing plants by 2060.

“The ‘snowball effect’ is when climate-worsened events reduce the reliability of clean energy, thus increasing the reliance on more dependable fossil fuel-generated power.”

But the nuclear plants in the global fleet are old. Two-thirds commenced operation in the 1970s and 1980s, with a then-expected service life of 30 to 40 years. Their builders did not consider worsening climate extremes in their design, construction, maintenance and operation. As a result, keeping plants operating past their prime carries risks to both energy generation and the plants themselves. When new extremes hit existing plants, they could result in a loss of the critical cooling systems required to prevent nuclear fuel from overheating, which can lead to a meltdown.

France came frightfully close to a nuclear disaster in 1999. Storm surge and strong winds during a high tide had pushed waves from an adjacent estuary over the dikes protecting the Blayais Nuclear Power Plant. The flooding forced three of the facility’s reactors into an emergency shutdown. Fortunately, a central cooling pump remained functional, preventing a nuclear meltdown. The specter of utter catastrophe prompted French authorities to spend 110 million euros ($122 million) on flood prevention measures like raising seawalls and strengthening dikes as well as creating a program to monitor future climate impacts on power plants.

More than 40% of existing nuclear plants are sited near shorelines, making them particularly vulnerable to storm surge, sea-level rise and intensification of storms. Inland plants face threats from riverine flooding and wildfires fueled by drier, hotter conditions. A fire came dangerously close to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California in 2014. In addition to these dangers, climate extremes can wreak havoc on the generation of nuclear power. A heat wave in France in 2018 shut down four plants.

“Wildfires deposit ash and dust on the solar panels and prevent sunlight from reaching their cells.”

In another instance, drought shrank the body of water used to cool the reactor, exposing the plant’s intake pipes. Too warm waters led to the shutdown of Connecticut’s Millstone plant in 2012 for 12 days. The largest source of power in the state had to halt operations at the height of the summer with air-conditioning demand at its peak. The seawater used to cool the nuclear units had become too warm — something the plant’s designers had surely never imagined. The shutdown forced reliance on fossil fuel plants to compensate for the energy shortfall, resulting in more carbon emissions.

As countries seek to eke out more life from nuclear reactors past their prime, the policy debate has focused on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear proliferation and the use of small reactors. It has largely ignored the growing safety and energy security vulnerabilities created by new weather extremes to decades-old plants, designed and constructed with no consideration of global warming. The decision whether to extend a plant’s service life rests with individual sovereign nations, yet the consequences of those decisions carry international implications if climate impacts damage nuclear facilities. To date, no international entity has assumed responsibility for determining the growing threats reactors face, much less their ability to operate safely in a changed climate. The absence of both oversight and standards, for new and existing plants, with regard to hotter conditions puts international energy security, the environment and human health at risk.

Another clean energy source, solar power, likewise faces disruption from accelerating climate extremes. Production of solar energy has exploded around the world, promising carbon-free energy for hundreds of millions of people. According to the IEA executive director, Fatih Birol, solar power is on its way to becoming the “new king” of the electricity sector. As the world goes solar, however, it has proven careless about considering the threats posed by climate impacts to solar generation. When solar power falls short, people and utilities are likely to turn to fossil fuels, be it coal and gas-powered power plants or diesel-fueled generators, to fill the gaps. Professor Gary Rosengarten at RMIT University in Australia termed this the “snowball effect,” when climate-worsened events reduce the reliability of clean energy, thus increasing the reliance on more dependable fossil fuel-generated power. Another word for this is “malmitigation.” The snowball effect has already smacked California and Australia, two areas in the world deeply affected by climate-worsened fires.

“Higher temperatures increase the amount of particulates, aerosols and moisture in the atmosphere, resulting in more clouds blocking the solar panels.”

Both regions have made major commitments to generating electricity from the sun. By 2018, solar power provided almost 14% of California’s power. Some of the electricity came from huge solar arrays, like the Topaz Solar Farm with 8.4 million solar panels occupying over 9.5 square miles in the middle of the state. California also requires that all new homes include rooftop solar systems. Meanwhile, Australia has the highest number of businesses and houses with rooftop solar panels anywhere in the world, soaring from 100,000 in 2010 to more than two million in 2019.

But as drier, hotter conditions have stoked bigger wildfires, the dirty smoke from those fires presents a challenge to solar power generation. It deposits ash and dust on the photovoltaic panels and prevents sunlight from reaching their cells, cutting electricity production. Indeed, in California, wildfires drove at least a 13% decline in solar generation on the grid during two weeks in September 2020, with some systems producing no solar power at all. In Australia, the bushfire-driven decline proved even more dramatic — as much as 45% in Sydney and Canberra on days with heavy smoke. In both locations, the electricity shortfalls forced utilities to ramp up or import electricity generated from coal or other fossil fuels, thus adding to carbon emissions.

And it’s not just wildfires that will hamper solar power generation. Fluctuations in cloud cover can as well. A study published in 2020 by a team of researchers showed that higher temperatures increase the amount of particulates, aerosols and moisture in the atmosphere, causing greater cloud formation and less solar radiation to reach the ground. This phenomenon will be most pronounced in hot, arid regions like the American Southwest and the Middle East, the researchers discovered — just where experts predict much greater expansion of solar power.

In the cases of wildfires or more clouds, energy system planners will need to consider whether the worsening impacts of climate change require new solar technologies that perform more effectively in challenging conditions. They might need to expand battery storage as well as seek other sources of energy to plan for the coming disruptions. They could additionally bridge the divide between adaptation and mitigation by reducing the threat of big wildfires through measures like climate-proofing electrical transmission, restricting development in fire-prone areas to reduce the risk of people igniting fires, and engaging in more controlled burns of forests and brush to reduce fuel loads that feed massive wildfires.

“Nature-based solutions provide an early place to marry the goals of climate adaptation and mitigation.”

As countries and communities seek to cut their emissions to slow global warming, they should consider the ramifications of those choices in terms of the twin goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience to climate impacts. They should watch for predictable side effects, such as the disruption of local ecosystems by the planting of massive amounts of trees to absorb carbon. As they opt for more wind or solar farms, they need to make sure that those facilities do not occupy the very land where the town might have to move in the future due to sea-level rise or increased riverine flooding. Similarly, if nations build dams to produce hydropower, they should examine the downstream effects on water availability for communities dependent on the river’s flow.

In addition, communities and nations should search for creative win/win solutions like installing solar panels above crops to provide shade cover to plants and extra income to farmers or placing floating panels on reservoirs to reduce evaporation of fresh water in water-stressed regions. As former U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz remarked while speaking of possible shortages of electricity-generating capacity going forward, “We need to do more in terms of looking at how the whole system fits together.” Nature-based solutions provide an early place to marry the goals of climate adaptation and mitigation.

This is a modified excerpt from Hill’s new book, “The Fight For Climate After COVID-19” (August 2021).