The public dialogue on climate change tends to revolve around the question of mitigation, or how we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to minimize the extent of any anthropogenic warming. Green groups and their supporters are quick to allege that climate change could lead to temperature increases, precipitation variability, and sea-level rise, but what they conveniently leave out is mankind’s ability to adapt to these challenges. From Moscow to Mumbai, humans have found a way to adapt to varying climatic conditions over the course of history and to think that we are not capable of doing so again would be a mistake.
Adaptation As An Alternative to Mitigation
Though adaptation may be on the fringe of the public policy debate, even the IPCC (2007) recognizes its importance as a means of addressing potential impacts. The report said that, “[e]ven the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot further avoid impacts of climate change in the next few decades, which makes adaptation essential, particularly in addressing near-term impacts.” What the IPCC does less to acknowledge is the ability of adaptation to meet the tangible needs of a localized population as opposed to mitigation’s speculative ability to meet the needs of a global population.
In many cases, adaptation may be more cost-effective and will yield positive benefits that will be realized regardless of the degree or extent of climate change. Goklany (2005a) analyzed the population at risk from malaria, hunger, water shortage, and coastal flooding under a number of different emissions scenarios and found that “risks and/or threats associated with these hazards would be lowered much more effectively and economically by reducing current and future vulnerability to those hazards rather than through [climate] stabilization.” Thus adaptation could provide more societal benefit for a reduced amount of economic aid. In a separate study, Goklany (2005b) found that stabilizing CO2 emissions at 550 ppm would reduce the population at risk of malaria by 0.4 percent while investing an additional $1.5 billion annually on malaria prevention and treatment would cut the number of deaths from the disease in half. By addressing pre-existing development issues, adaptation can make populations more resilient in any event.
One final note on adaptation was best put by Ridley (2010) where he compared two Newsweek quotes, one of which dealt with global cooling in the 1970s and the other with global warming three decades later. Both quotes said that any change in temperature would have dire consequences to which Ridley simply responded, “climate has always been varied; it is a special sort of narcissism to believe only the recent climate is perfect.”
Costs of Adaptation
Lawson (2007) concisely identifies six reasons why adaptation is a more cost-effective option that mitigation:
1) As was previously stated, none of the impacts from global warming are new phenomena and addressing these problems will bring benefits even if there is no further warming.
2) The benefits to adaptation will be realized even if the impact of anthropogenic warming is found to be greatly exaggerated.
3) Adaptation provides for local solutions to any adverse impacts.
4) Any potential benefits from global warming can be reaped while reducing the costs associated with the negative impacts.
5) The results of adaptation can yield substantial benefits in the near term.
6) Adaptation is “essentially a matter of a large number of local and practical measures, which require no international treaty or worldwide agreement to implement.”
It is for these reasons that adaptation should take a more central role in constructing climate policy while also adopting “no-regret” mitigation measures and conducting thorough research that can help increase our adaptive capacity in the event that the impacts of global warming turn out to be more severe than currently predicted. (Goklany 2005a)
Adaptation Already Occurring
The Economist (2010), hardly a climate skeptic, suggested that part of the reason that adaptation is rarely discussed in the public sphere is because it involves adjustments that people make naturally be it changing crops or moving to a more habitable climate.
The IPCC has acknowledged that such adaptation to observed and anticipated climate change is already occurring: “climate change is considered in the design of infrastructure projects such as coastal defense in the Maldives and the Netherlands, and the Confederation Bridge in Canada. Other, examples include prevention of glacial lake outburst in Nepal, and polices and strategies such as water management in Australia and government responses to heat waves in, for example, some European countries.”
Even with this acknowledgment, many climate change models, including the IPCC’s, do not always take into account basic understanding of mankind’s ability to adapt to different stresses. Lawson notes that, at one point, the Stern Report generalized that there would be a 70% reduction in crop yields assuming no adaptation. What was less prominent in this assessment was that the study in question referred only to groundnuts in Northern India. Assuming that Stern knew that climate change impacts are localized in nature, it would seem strange to stretch those conclusions beyond their initial definition while also assuming that no adaptation was taking place whatsoever.
Economist, The. Nov 27, 2010. Adapting to climate change: Facing the consequences. 85-88.
Goklany, I. 2005a. A Climate Policy for the Short and Medium Term: Stabilization or Adaptation?. Energy and Environment 16: 667-680.
Goklany, I. 2005b. Living with Global Warming. NCPA Policy Report No. 278.
IPCC. 2007. Working Group II Contribution to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Summary for Policymakers.
Lawson, N. 2008. An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming. Overlook Duckworth.
Ridley, M. 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. HarperCollins.