Mitigation vs. Adaptation

Which one matters more?

Most people with skin in the climate game do not disagree that there needs to be an “integrated portfolio” of policies involving both trying to avoid greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and those working to cope with the impacts of global warming (adaptation). The disagreement is over where the emphasis should be.

Now, a growing chorus calls for a sober look at how little progress has been made toward curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the past 25 years. Since the 1990s, 2° C has been the threshold planetary temperatures must not cross lest the Earth risk catastrophic climate chaos. Yet, the planet’s average temperature is already 0.8° over preindustrial levels, and atmospheric CO2 soared past 400 ppm last year. Many scientists are arguing that more realistically, the Earth is looking at an increase of 3°-4° by the end of the century. Even with the most ambitious global agreement to curb emissions – still far away – they say it is probably too late to prevent global warming.

Geoscientists Jasper Knight and Stephen Harrison argue that as feedbacks within the Earth system are themselves key drivers of climate change, addressing greenhouse gas emissions alone is insufficient for managing global warming. They note that different jurisdictions, industries and even disciplines have conflicting measures for carbon budgets, with vested interests engaging in budgetary sleights-of-hand.

Some high-profile figures began to argue after the 2009 UN climate talks debacle in Copenhagen that the focus needs to shift to adaptation, particularly in the developing world where climate change effects are most deleterious. Rather than tough mitigation agreements, the emphasis should be on building greater societal resiliency through water conservation, flood defense, dike construction and development of drought-tolerant crops. Land corridors should be created to help species migrate, and in some areas abandoning settlements should be considered, with residents to move inland.

Countering the adaptation champions, others warn that some impacts from climate change are fiendishly difficult to accommodate such as ocean acidification, more dangerous and frequent wildfires, and the creation of climate refugees. There also worry that a switch to an adaptation emphasis would use up the limited government and private resources set aside for mitigation. Thus, without mitigation, the need for adaptation would again become greater.

There is a reckless, almost climate-sceptic, bent to the pro-adaptation argument, some experts argue, in which fossil-fuel companies and industry are let off the hook, and the pressure to reduce emissions is eased. Certainly, many free-market advocates like the American Enterprise Institute have long favoured adaptation over emissions reduction. MIT professor of systems dynamics John Sterman argues that if people believe they are protected from rising seas or more intensive storms, they could be less amenable to supporting mitigation policies.

Finally, adaptation is already the ugly sister at the private finance ball, compared to mitigation, as seawalls, building code amendments and water-use efficiency projects aren’t the money spinners that clean energy projects can be.

If you want to read more, the World Bank Research Observer journal considers the options, leaning toward mitigation as the cheapest option, while Peter Terpstra of the World Resources Institute considers how adaptation has been short-changed in terms of climate finance commitments.