Climate adaptation vs. mitigation: What’s the difference, and why does it matter?
If you keep up with the news, you likely know about rising temperatures threatening food and water supplies across the planet, making hurricanes stronger, and stretching droughts out even longer.
These are all clear signs of a changing climate, happening right here, right now. And even though it’s the present day we’re talking about, we can learn an important lesson from history.
That lesson? When nature speaks this clearly, we better listen – and respond.
As Harvard archaeologist Dr.Jason Ur told NASA, “When we excavate the remains of past civilizations, we very rarely find any evidence that they as a whole society made any attempts to change in the face of a drying climate, a warming atmosphere or other changes… I view this inflexibility as the real reason for collapse.”
As the ancient Mayan, Khmer, and Minoan empires (among others) discovered, inaction in the face of a changing climate can lead to catastrophe. So, what are the ways we can respond, and how do we choose between them?
ONE CRISIS, TWO RESPONSES
Imagine you’re on a ship that’s sinking because of a leak. If you want to stay afloat, you’ve got to act.
The first thing you could do is grab a bucket and pour water out as it gushes through the hull. This response is adaptation — addressing the effect (the water in the boat), but not the cause of the problem (the hole).
In the climate world, the IPCC defines adaptation as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects.” It’s doing what we can to live with and minimize the destruction and suffering that comes from climate change.
Because – to be clear – we have to adapt. To choose just one example, seas are already rising. Now, scientists project that the cities and land currently home to as many as 110 million people could be underwater at high tide by 2050 if current emissions continue.
Failing to adapt to the reality we know is coming (and in many cases, is already here) to prevent widespread misery and death isn’t just irresponsible – it’s criminal. Especially when we know that the worst climate impacts hit poor families and people of color the hardest.
The bottom line is this: We’ve got to build homes and infrastructure that can handle the stronger storms and floods on the horizon. We’ve got to figure out how to feed billions even as global warming slashes farm yields, turns staple crops into junk food, and transforms where we can grow what. And on and on.
Potential climate adaptations span a variety of sectors, from agricultural, to coastal, to urban, and many more. Some strategies include:
- Building sea walls, elevating infrastructure, or retreating from low-lying coastal areas altogether. In the U.S., for example, cities like Charleston, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco (to name a few) already have billion-dollar investments planned to protect their sea-bound populations.
- Reducing and recycling water use due to drought. For instance, Spain — which has lost 20 percent of its fresh water in just the past 20 years — has made significant changes to its national water policy.
- Using prescribed fires to prevent uncontrollable wildfires. Take the Southeastern United States — the region of the country with the highest use of prescribed fires. It’s no surprise this practice is increasing in the region given that by mid-century “NOAA suggests that the risk of very large fire weeks will increase by 300%”.
- Favoring drought-tolerant crops like rice, cowpea, and maize, just as many African countries have done in response to decreasing rain.
As these examples (and most of human history) show, we’re pretty good at responding to environmental changes when we put our heads to it.
However, we can’t stop there. We can’t adapt our way out of this crisis — especially not with the absolutely unprecedented rate of change we’re seeing now. Truly solving the climate crisis calls for mitigation.
Let’s climb back aboard our sinking ship. If adaptation is pouring water out to stay afloat in the moment, sealing the leak to halt more water coming in is mitigation. In other words, it’s addressing the root cause of the problem rather than dealing with its effects.
In a climate context, as the IPCC describes, mitigation is “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”.
In practice, mitigation can take a variety of forms, including:
- Replacing greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas with clean, renewable energies like solar, wind, and geothermal. With renewables becoming “the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world” in 2019 (compared to in just 1 percent of the world five years ago), this measure has quickly gone from a dream to an everyday reality.
- Replacing traditional internal-combustion vehicles with electric options (ideally charged with renewable energy). Just like renewables, electric vehicles are looking better than ever. As Bloomberg NEF describes: “Over 2 million electric vehicles were sold in 2018, up from just a few thousand in 2010.”
- Retrofitting old buildings to make them more energy efficient — a fast-growing industry worth $300 billion globally.
- Planting trees and preserving forests so they can absorb and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Just like the other strategies, in recent years tree planting has seen unprecedented action by governments and private groups alike. In 2017, for example, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh planted 66 million trees in just one day.
These are just four examples, but we have dozens of tried-and-tested ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. So, given those two choices, how do we decide which way to go?
WHY THE DIFFERENCE MATTERS
The truth is, we’ve reached a point where no single one of these paths will get us to a truly just and livable future.
As the IPCC made clear in a recent report: “Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link mitigation and adaptation.”
The scientists are right — we need all hands (and solutions) on deck. In the case of our sinking ship, we’ve got to both seal the leak and pour water out if we’re going to avoid sinking.
Here’s the thing though. These two solution paths are far from equal. Both may protect people from a changing climate, but they have very different outcomes.
The reason? Two words: Climate Justice.
Ultimately, all countries around the world, regardless of their size or wealth, have limited resources they can use to respond to the climate crisis. From a policymaker’s perspective, adaptation is a local, private good with often clear and immediate benefits. On the other, mitigation is a global, public good with far-away benefits. Which leads most nations — from an economic perspective — to choose the former option.
The real outcome of these two choices presents a clear moral dilemma.
Author and climate expert Bert Gordijn breaks down this predicament in his essay “Ethics of Mitigation, Adaptation and Geoengineering”:
“So far, many rich countries seem to be unwilling or are unable to carry through radical measures to hold back greenhouse gas emissions … [a]s a result, many people, especially in the poorest countries in the world, have experienced and will increasingly encounter adverse climate change effects on health, both in terms of morbidity and mortality.”
The reality, as he explains, is that wealthy countries have the power of choice. They can bear the cost of reducing their emissions to the benefit of the world, or they can just choose to adapt, ensuring their short-term security while leaving everyone else behind. So far, they’ve largely chosen to avoid mitigation.
This is not just a problem for today, though. As Gordijn goes on to explain, it’s a generational justice issue as well:
“Kicking the can down the road in relation to mitigation, however, also means that future generations will have to bear the brunt of climate change. This triggers intricate questions of intergenerational justice … Our lack of success to curb greenhouse gas emissions seems to be compromising the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
He’s right. Failing to mitigate our emissions today is leaving this problem — or really, a worse version of it — for our children and grandchildren to deal with.
Although mitigation and adaptation are both necessary now, the less we choose to mitigate today, the more adaptation we’ll need later — adaptation that will become progressively less effective as storms simply overwhelm seawalls, for example. And adaptation that many developing countries already struggle to afford given just today’s climate impacts.
All of this said without even mentioning the potential for dangerous feedback loops: a very possible scenario where, if current emissions continue, warming temperatures unleash irreversible changes across the earth – like melting Arctic permafrost releasing gigatons of heat-trapping methane. In turn, these events could unleash even more warming and, as a result, even more climate impacts.
There is only one moral answer: Though we must adapt today, we must truly solve the problem by mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.
By Diego Rojas