Guest post by Nathan Chan
We all know the story well. Carbon emissions from human sources have greatly altered the earth’s energy balance, and as a result, global temperature will rise and bring with it a suite of dangers. For the concerned citizen, this scientific reality is a call to action – a call to prevent such ills by cutting our collective emissions (a strategy that is commonly known as climate change mitigation).
That is the common refrain, anyway. But what this chain of logic sometimes skips over is the part where climate change is already a reality, and our choice is not whether or not we will face global warming, but instead how much. Given that some level of climate change is unequivocally upon us, it is imperative that we complement the discussions of mitigation with serious consideration of how to adapt to our changing reality. Whereas mitigation seeks to attack the root cause of climate change, adaptation seeks to prepare us for its consequences.
Hurricane Sandy flooded social media outlets with I-told-you-so’s from friends reminding us that we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, cutting carbon will decrease the likelihood and frequency of events like Sandy, but in truth, our most recent mega-storm was a different type of reminder for me. For me, Sandy highlighted the importance of adaptation and resilience, more so than a need for mitigation. Mitigation efforts would reduce the probability of events like Sandy, but when these storms do hit, it is essential that our communities be prepared. This time around, we simply were not.
Brian Stone, Jr., a professor of urban planning, makes the case that the climate community’s focus on global mitigation efforts has diverted attention away from local and regional adaptation. It’s a real shame that adaptation has received short shrift. Mitigation will require truly worldwide cooperation to be effective, and if the annual cycles of excitement, concern, and disappointment surrounding the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings are any indication, we remain years away from agreeing on a binding plan for mitigation.
In the meantime, adaptation efforts should not wait; we can begin preparing for future impacts immediately. Communities, cities, regions, and countries are fully empowered to act in their own best interest when it comes to adaptation. They can build storm surge barriers and restore wetlands; they can update building and infrastructure codes; and they can change the incentives to build in vulnerable areas by adjusting insurance schemes. While the need for international cooperation is a major stumbling block in climate change (mitigation) negotiations, local and regional authorities have full agency over adaptation plans that affect their constituents.
This is not to say that adaptation will be easy. There are a host of challenges when it comes to adaptation, too. For one, we’ll need better science and better assessments of the risks posed by climate change, and we need more fine tuning in our research. As Stone points out, our intensive study of warming at the global level leaves us with a relatively coarse understanding of local impacts.
We’ll also need improved risk-literacy so that we can properly evaluate low-probability, high-impact events as a society and decide accordingly how much we’re willing to spend protecting against them. In the U.S. at least, expenditures to avoid risk are highly inconsistent, likely due to a combination of politics and fundamental misunderstandings of risk. The problem is magnified with climate change, as its associated dangers are unfamiliar and not always salient.
Lastly, any plans for adaptation will demand heavy investment, so they will require commitment from citizens and authorities to finance and implement. We’ll need to make important tradeoffs as a society when deciding the amount of resources to put into adaptation efforts. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre is one group that is attempting to highlight tradeoffs in the climate context, and they will be playing climate risk games with COP18 delegates in Doha this winter to help inform policy decisions.
Overall, the path to adaption won’t be an easy one, but the critical point is that adaptation is something that we can do by ourselves, for ourselves. We certainly should not underestimate the importance of mitigation, but effective mitigation efforts will take time. The goal of mitigation is to save lives and improve welfare, but then so too is adaptation’s. As we meander toward a global climate consensus, let’s not forget to pick the low-hanging fruit.