Adaptation v. Mitigation, Episode XVI

David Roberts and Roger Pielke Jr. took another turn around the adaptation/mitigation block today. Roger argued, as he has for some time, that adaptation to the problems caused by climate change needs to be given the same due in policy discussions as attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (“mitigation,” in the parlance of the field.)

David said that of course everyone agrees, and what’s all the fuss about anyway?

In short, the solutions he (Pielke) advocates are the same ones pushed by just about everyone in the climate debate: a mix of adaptation and mitigation.

Down in the comments, David allows as how most of what he calls the “green commentators” focus mostly on the greenhouse gas reduction part, but they really do believe in adaptation too, they’re just not talking so much about it. But they really do believe it, so what’s all the fuss about, anyway?

The fuss, David, is the problem posed by things like this report, which came across my desk today at work. It’s from NRDC, and looks at the problems posed by climate change in the western United States.

The report offers up a compelling litany of reasons why we’re fucked here in the west because of climate change: dwindling snowpack, seasonal runoff shifts, heat waves, more frequent droughts, etc. I turned with interest to Chapter 7, “Policy Conclusions and Recommendations.”

We must immediately adopt comprehensive policies that will reduce emissions of global warming pollutants.

Energy efficiency initiatives. Low-carbon transportation fuels. Carbon capture. Lieberman-Warner. All mitigation. But not one word about the societal changes we in the west will have to undertake to cope with the climate change already in the pipeline, no matter how successful we might be in curbing future greenhouse emissions.

This would be an unfair response to David’s argument if the NRDC report was an exception, but this is the rule. Over and over, I see climate change in the west used as an argument in favor of greenhouse gas reductions, and over and over I have seen the necessary political and policy discussions of what might be needed for adaptation either implicitly or explicitly off the table, most often because of a fear that such discussions will somehow sap the political will needed to change our energy habits.

I’m out here in arid New Mexico, boots on the ground trying to help my fellow citizens understand what we must do in response to climate change, and we’re sure as hell not getting any help thinking about the issue from David’s green commentators. If these people really believe, as David says, that “a mix of adaptation and mitigation” is needed, they sure have a funny way of showing it.


  1. Is it possible we have a division of labor split on this question?

    I think it’s true that environmental advocates usually focus on mitigation efforts, but it’s also true that water managers and others in the government usually focus on adaptation.

    This may not be the best way to run a railroad, but maybe it’s not completely crazy either — advocates probably should be working to change policy on a electoral level, and bureaucrats should be working to allocate resources.

    Meanwhile, the usefulness of blame has yet to be shown.

  2. Sacrifice is a touchy subject, and few politicians are willing to stake their futures on saying “I am asking you to accept this burden so that the future is better”. The personal giving-up is hard to sell, but I do think we’ll see people bringing it up as conservatives move from attacking global warming to an emphasis on adaptation and survival on individual impetus. It will absolve the government from having to look for a solution, and it will make the problems of failure to change the fault of the individual. Of course, this debate won’t happen in a vacuum, so maybe individual sacrifice will come up as well as personal responsibility

  3. I wonder if market forces do a better job at pushing adaptation than they do mitigation? For instance, housing insurance in Florida has become very expensive, and very hard to get – it may do more than warnings about hurricanes or sea level rise to change building patterns.

    Water is publicly managed out here, so there isn’t a direct link between scarcity and cost. But there’s more obvious local effect of water shortages than there is of the effect of using an electric heater or an air conditioner. I think that some of the emphasis on mitigation comes from the difficulty of getting people to recognize a problem with an odorless, colorless gas.

    (It might be different getting people to think about water in, say, Las Vegas, where the source of the water isn’t directly obvious.)

  4. I agree with both Kit and Kelsey**.

    The division of labor point is a good one: folk who are action-oriented want to do something. The bifurcated political response point outlines the differing viewpoints that work in this country.

    I can tell you that one of the things that I’m working on that just got approved has both adaptation and mitigation, and the two are intermixed and interactive. They are not mutually exclusive.

    For example, we can mitigate emissions effects by doing a better job at arranging our built environment to make it more walkable and amenable to people; we can adapt to the built environment by accepting our neighbors rather than fencing them out or keeping them away.

    Neither of these actions is easy, because it involves change. It is easier to do something, such as passing an ordinance narrowing streets and placing them on the Spanish grid than it is to ask people to move – one is measurable and one is not very measurable. It is easier to do something…er…concrete and expecting some to adapt than it is to propose something and asking can everyone adapt please? because everyone won’t. Change is hard.

    If you want your boots to walk down the path of adapting to adaptation, you’ll want to put on nice shoes so when the folks on your therapy couch tell you their problems, they see your nice shoes and become comfortable enough to share their problems.

    Pure adaptation is being willing to change. But mitigation is changing the way we do things. We react in different ways to change. We’ll be adapting to a warmer world and changing our house to add a window to catch the breeze instead of turning on the AC, which is a form of mitigation (reducing emissions).

    So in my mind the stark distinction between one and the other is a false binary.

    Perhaps the work is to communicate more clearly what the differing scenarios actually look like on the ground, every day, so people can visualize them & start the change process.



    ** this is not to say I disagree with John.

  5. A national government focus on adaptation, in the agriculture and water availabilty sectors, is essential, largely ignored, and hugely expensive. But, it is as important as negotiating a post-Kyoto treaty.

    The Ogallala aquifer is an endangered water source and has been for a generation. Yet, the ethanol industry demand for corn feedstock is putting more pressure on that groundwater resource. Not much adaptation planning there.

    Intensive research of more drought-resistent grain crops is waiting for attention and funding.

    We must do both mitigation and adaptation but we are probably too later for the former and too slow on the latter. When the water is coming into the boat faster than the bilge pump can pump it back out, there had better be a survival plan: adapt to the lifeboats.

    And, I searched the NRDC report for the word “Arctic”.

    Two hits: “Arctic Greyling” and a reference document on the “Arctic greyling”. That makes the report entirely incomplete because it ignores the frightening ’cause and effect’ aspect of a drying western North America.

    As the Arctic sea ice melts to a greater extent and exposes more water surface, the heat uptake will continue to impact weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere. Add to that the continiung and possibly accelerating deforetation and desertifiaction of the Amazon basin and possible impacts on climate of the Western NA.

    How can the report talk about the drying West and not even mention a probable cause. NRDC should have done a better report.

    John McCormick

  6. Folks –

    Great comments, thanks all.

    First, I think Kim is right, though I’m not sure I’d limit it to “the market.” Water agencies in the West will simply have no choice but to adapt when the water isn’t there.

    Kit – I don’t think you’re wrong regarding the division of labor, but it has consequences. With all the political energy going toward mitigation, the water managers are left hanging without the political muscle they need to take the sometimes painful steps necessary to deal with the adaptation side of things. This renders David’s argument that, “Well of course everyone believes adaptation is important” hollow. The measure of the strength of the belief is a willingness to act on it. The fact that national environmental groups abandon us to our own devices is a problem, and belies David’s glib notion that everyone who matters “believes in adaptation *and* mitigation.” In that regard, I’d love to hear Dano’s thoughts as someone out in the trenches. How deep is the well of your political support for the kind of processes you describe?

  7. John:

    I think that at least some of the the issue is that mitigation is more of a broad-scale, world-wide issue, whereas adaption is often more regional. or even local.

    In some places, people who actually have to *do* something are working hard on adaptation issues, but these vary. In CA, we have the snowpack issue like you do, but we also care about sea-level rise in the SF bay Area, which doesn’t affect NM much.

    For instance:
    and the agenda is:

  8. In that regard, I’d love to hear Dano’s thoughts as someone out in the trenches. How deep is the well of your political support for the kind of processes you describe?

    Well, I had a line of people testifying to their happiness at how I worked things out (& my boss got to hear it all).

    But the processes I described are flexible, adaptable to changing market conditions, and don’t privilege one particular way over another (unless you count rejecting the built environment pattern that appeared after WWII as privileging one way over another). These processes make a more amenable and attractive and safe built environment. They are value-added. Who doesn’t want that?

    My experience is if you go in guns blazing over a particular way, you’re going to get shot down. If you go in with ears open, you’re much more likely to get a reasonable solution.



  9. OK, let’s have some sympathy for the devil here.

    1) The mitigation issue has unprecedented scope

    I think there’s a question here of scale and scope. The mitigation issue has to be solved globally, and there’s little precedent (except for the rather easier CFC story which is a very important success). It has a lead time of decades. There are a lot of interests at stake.

    2) Failure to address adaptation issues is driven by local concerns

    As others have pointed out, the adaptation issues are mostly regional, and sometimes interregional. (I’m going to a talk tomorrow about international rivers, as it happens.)

    One relelvant issue is that the regions which are most at risk tend to drop into denial. (“They” will figure something out, after all…)

    Consider Galveston, a real estate boom laboring under the double whammy of local subsidence due to aquifer depletion and global sea level rise. Unsurprisingly, the response of the powers that be there is to adopt full-throated denial that any of this presents a problem.

    I don’t know that the current population of New Mexico is sustainable without unrealistic imports of water. That’s a hell of a message for you or your newspaper to be delivering. Sometimes the best adaptation is to pack your bags and go somewhere else, but you can’t say that, can you?

    3) No adaptation is possible without sufficient mitigation

    Also, the idea that there is some sort of zero sum game between adaptation and mitigation is pretty seriously misplaced. It’s quite asymmetrical. Without enough mitigation, adaptation becomes infeasible. No amount of adaptation will help with mitigation, but some substantial amount of mitigation will greatly help with adaptation.

    So I’m not convinced you should look to us mitigationists to back down in favor of adaptation; to say that we should cut greenhouse gases to something less than the feasible minimum and spend the rest on water projects. That makes less sense to me the more I think about it.

  10. Michael –

    You miss my point when you suggest that I’m “look(ing) to us mitigationists to back down in favor of adaptation.” That’s not at all what I’m doing. Quite the opposite, I’m asking “mitigationists” to stop ignoring the importance of adaptation. The irony of the response is fascinating. I’m arguing precisely that it’s *not* a zero sum game, but that the mitigation community is treating it as such. That’s the whole point of my criticism of the NRDC report. They clearly did not feel like they had the political capital to discuss policy options other than mitigation, despite the fact that the entire report screams out about the need for adaptation.

    You make a great point about the long term sustainability of the population of New Mexico. That’s precisely the discussion I’m trying to have here. We’re not Galveston. We have choices about what sort of population might be sustainable over the long term. But that discussion is made much more difficult by the willful action of advocates who are unwilling to let the adaptation discussion surface at all.

  11. I think mt and I are saying the same thing: you can’t have mitigation w/o adaptation nor adaptation w/o mitigation. Informint society of this is the journalist’s job, and helping/asking/motivating society ‘s infrastructure is the politician’s task.



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