Public messaging on climate change is dominated by the discussion of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to limit the warming and to stop the “worst effects” of climate change. This is the mitigation of global warming. Headlines range from declarations of climate despair to the measured voices of those who insist that there is still the time and wherewithal to limit warming to the goals aspired to by the United Nations.
Amid this cacophony of mitigation panic and sought-after patience is another discussion that has been going on for more than a decade. Namely, that we are not likely to meet emission-reduction goals such as those of the Paris agreement. This is complemented by the fact that we live in a rapidly changing climate, rapid change will continue, and we are not going back to the climate of our childhoods.
When we consider how we will address our climate future, it is worth considering our past behavior and choices. We have had the ability and the roadmap to make major strides in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and mitigating climate change for many years. In many cases, these mitigation tactics are “no regrets,” with very quick monetary payback for expenditures — the insulation of houses and choosing fuel-efficient vehicles, for example. Yet we have not taken these steps at the scales that are required for effective intervention.
Mitigation is one response, but adaptation can be framed as the other response. Adaptation is responding to the effects of warming or perhaps coping with the consequences of the warming Earth. With the public conversation focusing overwhelmingly on mitigation, adaptation has been a neglected topic.
Compared with mitigation, adaptation is relatively easy. Effective mitigation requires changing human behavior, ingrained geopolitical and economic power structures, and built infrastructure on a global scale. It requires convincing people to invest for the common good of other people, often decades into the future.
At its simplest, adaptation can be carried out by an individual. You can sell the house next to the ocean and move to northern Michigan. You can reinforce your roof and put your oceanside house on stilts. There is a concrete value proposition.
Although adaptation can be carried out by individuals, it is better and certainly more equitable to plan on the larger scales of a community, a city or a region. As the geographical scale increases and more individuals, organizations and local governments are involved, it does get more difficult. However, the threats to life, property and the local environment often serve as motivation to challenge the barriers of cooperation and shared beneficial outcomes.
When a region successfully implements adaptation plans, communities are likely to have wins when the next storm is not as destructive and costly. These wins help people cope with global warming and realize some ability to take control of what has been often stated as an existential threat.
There have been those calling for adaptation policy for many years. However, it has been difficult to get adaptation on the policy agenda. This is ascribed to many reasons, including the persistent, spurious argument that if we talk of adaptation, then we will decide that we do not need to mitigate our emissions. However, we are at the point that, even if we were to meet all of the emission reduction goals of the United Nations’ Paris agreement, adaptation will still be required.
In the end, the most important aspect of adaptation is fundamentally human. If individuals and communities can see adaptation as a way of sustaining their well-being in the face of rapidly changing weather, then it is a step of moving past the narrative that we must, between now and 2030, solve an existential threat to our survival.
We can see successful adaptation strategies spreading, scaling, and bringing planetary warming into the mind-set and the behavior of more and more people. We must entrain dealing with the weather of a warming Earth into all that we do. And that, we assert, will make the need for mitigation more real and urgent.
Richard B. (Ricky) Rood is a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering at the University of Michigan.
Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbons is executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.