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Climate Adaptation and Mitigation

Written by Theresa Jedd, 2012-2013 SoGES Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidat in the Department of Political Science

Considering the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 1988 to examine the impact humans have on the Earth's climate, it seems that US professional science organizations may have been a bit behind. Nevertheless, the American Geophysical Union (2003), the US National Academy of Sciences (2005), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2007), and the American Meteorological Society (2012), have all issued consensus statements that climate change is anthropogenically driven. We have a clear basis for claiming that we are experiencing change beyond the realm of natural variation. The benefit of having this clear basis for climate science is that we can now shift our concern toward policy recommendations, rather than quibbling over the causes of an altered climate. In interdisciplinary earth science policy research we hear a lot these days about mitigation and adaptation strategies. But what are they? And why do we focus on one versus the other in developing and industrialized countries? Here, looking at the roots of development—largely fueled by industrialization—is helpful. From this understanding, we see patterns of responsibility emerge that require a differentiated response at the global level. This is because the benefits and burdens of development have been unequally distributed. At the international level, this becomes increasingly clear. Notions of equity and environmental justice can help us better understand why strategies for dealing with a changing climate are differentiated between mitigation in industrialized countries and adaptation in developing countries. The US environmental justice literature brings together two of the most significant social movements of the 20th century: environmentalism and civil rights. From these lessons, we can scale up our notion of equity to the international level. In terms of distributive justice, just as individuals—much like economically disadvantaged populations living near petroleum refineries or residents in the neighborhood of Love Canal in upstate New York should be protected from unreasonable risks and harms through mitigation efforts, we also owe it to populations negatively impacted by the effects of climate change to assist with adaptation efforts.

The analogy of an individual on a balcony watering his flower box with a gushing hose while the unit below is flooding can help illustrate the differentiated responsibilities faced by industrialized and developing countries. If the individual on the upper floor has engaged in activities that are directly causing the poor conditions for those living in the unit below, we see that he is uniquely positioned both in terms of the benefits he has received and the responsibility he has to rectify any damage along the way. The flowers have been drenched and the hose is still running. From a moral perspective, mitigation, or taking steps to fix the flooding problem, then, is the responsibility of the top-floor tenant. Clive Ponting, in A New Green History of the World (Penguin Books, 2007), chronicles the periods in human history that have culminated in what we have now come to think of as affluence. The lifestyle we enjoy in the wealthiest countries is a direct result of rapid industrialization that began in the 19th century. Since the rise of factory production and widespread availability of electricity, we have a great number of conveniences at our fingertips—but these do not come without cost. Greenhouse gas emissions have now surged past thresholds that scientists have marked as critical tipping points.

Mitigation, or efforts to lessen our impact on the climate, is largely the responsibility of developed countries—after all, it is the process of industrialization that has been linked to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations (this is the basis for anthropogenic climate change). If we have largely reaped the benefits of industrialization, we should also bear the burdens. Mitigation, then, is about recognizing that even though we may not face immediate risks, we owe it to the world to reduce our impact on the atmosphere. The most obvious type of mitigation can be achieved by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By decreasing the levels produced by our energy consumption and land use patterns, we reduce GHG loading, and ultimately lessen the greenhouse gas effect, or radiative forcing, on the planet. This involves using renewable sources of energy or, ultimately, reducing our consumption. One country that has been particularly good at doing this is Germany. As former State Secretary for the Federal Environment Ministry Rainer Baake articulates, the key to an energy transition is to create a stable environment for investment. Germany accomplished this by adopting longer-term policies—at least 10 or 20 years into the future—that are linked to reduction targets for the year 2050. Unlike the constantly shifting rebate structure for wind and solar development under US federal, state, and local tax code, German subsidies are guaranteed for longer terms, adding to a more attractive investing environment for the renewables industry. Coupled with emissions limits (caps) and end-user consumption costs (taxes), this has been a very effective strategy for Germany to stay on track for meeting its reduction targets. (Click here to see a short interview with former Secretary Baake.)

Of course, that is not to say that we don't need to take steps toward adaptation in industrialized countries as well—even if we don't feel the immediate effects of crop loss in bad years because we can import food, we should still adopt policies that reduce emissions. You see, the linkage between climate change and our daily quality of life simply isn't as strong in the industrialized context as it is in the developing world. If crops fail, food shortages ensue much more rapidly without a strong currency and food trade infrastructure; developing states often cannot afford to "buy" their way out of a food shortage by pulling more agricultural products from the global market. If farmers cannot afford to grow food, populations will go hungry now and into the future as agricultural divestment takes place, putting already vulnerable populations in an even more risky position of no longer being able to grow their own food. Without cooperation from industrialized countries, adaptation is really the only choice that developing countries have. In the Philippines, for example, farmers face incredible variation from year to year in terms of precipitation. At some points, adaptation involved early warning systems taking the form of citizen science by empowering community members to monitor changing conditions. For example, a bridge pylon can be outfitted with a simple visual measuring device that allows regular users and passers-by to notice daily fluctuations and alert one another when flooding may be occurring. In times of drought, however, adaptation requires crop insurance so that farmers can continue to grow food. (For a short film on these types of adaptation in the Philippines, see the International Labor Organization's (ILO) YouTube channel.)

Returning to the balcony garden analogy, we can clearly see that climate adaptation activities are most needed on the flooded ground level if the top-floor tenant refuses to turn off the water. If the ground floor residents do not have a good relationship with their upstairs neighbor, it becomes necessary to cobble together a gutter to divert the exorbitant flows in an ex post facto fashion. Climate adaptation policies are somewhat akin to fashioning a gutter after the flooding has already started. Ultimately, though, the most useful strategy would involve mitigation measures on the garden hose that has been left running on soggy, waterlogged flowerbeds. In international climate politics today, we unfortunately need both mitigation as well as adaptation measures at this point, as we’ve already passed critical tipping points*; however, everyone could greatly benefit from enacting mitigation measures in the most industrialized countries, even if we’ve been largely reluctant to do so in past decades. We can still have flowers on the balcony, but we don’t need to flood the basement. After all, it only takes a well-directed strategic watering now and again to keep flowers blooming.

*  Roger Pielke argued, more than a decade ago, that adaptation should figure more prominently in climate policy. See: Pielke, Roger. 1998. “Rethinking the role of adaptation in climate policy.” Global Environmental Change 8(2); 159-170.


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