April 7, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich


There has recently been a lot of talk about adaptation in the context of climate change. The Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (WGII AR5), published last week, certainly referred to adaptation quite often. This is not surprising, as WG2 deals with “pervasive risks” posed by climate change and opportunities for effective responses to such risks. There were also some voices, generally critical of IPCC reports, who talked about adaptation. What struck me as peculiar was that talking about adaptation seems to be acceptable in both types of talk (what one my call IPCC supportive and IPCC critical talk). However, talking about mitigation, is generally not seen as acceptable in the latter type of discourse.

Mitigation and adaptation

I started to wonder why that was. Mitigation is generally defined as the action of reducing the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of something – and in the case of climate change reducing greenhouse gas emissions is seen as such an action. This means if you accept that mitigation is necessary, you also accept various general tenets of climate science. You also accept various projections about how future climates might develop over time. If, however, you have concerns that these futures are severely overstated, that they are ‘alarmist’ and even unknowable, you will shrink away from talking about mitigation. Adaptation by contrast seems to be seen as something good to think about across the two types of talk, the IPCC supportive and the IPCC critical ones.

Indeed, adaptation is hailed by some as being ‘a good idea’, even outside discussions of climate change and/or global warming, indeed as something that lies, it seems, outside alarmist discourses. In a recent article for The Spectator Matt Ridley wrote: “Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it. Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for preventing carbon dioxide emissions.”


So, there is some resistance to trying to ‘prevent’ climate change, but some acceptance of trying to ‘adapt’ [to climate change]. For me that throws up questions about how we think about the future, and highlights different ways in which one might want to think about the future (or as some might call it ‘anticipatory governance‘ of the world we want to live in). In the first case you look at the future ‘in the long run’ and also quite globally; in the second case you look at the future ‘now’ and also quite locally. The first option makes you think about future generations not only in one place, but all over the place. The second option makes you think about current generations within the place you want to protect from foods, droughts etc. But is that possible? Can current and localized protection work without taking into consideration future and global prevention? More importantly, how do you make decisions about adaptation here and now without knowledge of what level, say, of flooding you have to adapt to and whether certain local levels of flooding may be prevented by more global action.

IPCC reports have talked about mitigation and adaptation for many years; since around 1988. As future impacts of climate change and risks posed by climate change became clearer, it became also clearer that in a context where mitigation is not occurring, adaptation may have to be emphasized more. This seems to have happened in the most recent IPCC report.


Between the two concepts of mitigation and adaptation lies the concept of modification. All three concepts deal with change or changing something; they are procedural concepts. They allow us to think about how we want to live and how we can live in a changing world. As far as the IPCC is concerned, the world is changing in so far as it’s getting warmer. In order to cope with this change humans can try to slow this process down through mitigation and they can also attempt to live with the effects of this change through adaptation. These two options are political options based on what scientists have found out about the world and have summarized in various IPCC reports. If we accept that the world is warming, which seems to be accepted by both those championing mitigation and those championing adaptation, then modifying the ways we live in the world seems to be necessary. I am genuinely puzzled why the two ways of modifying our ways of life through mitigation and adaptation have to be seen as exclusive choices rather than as genuinely compatible ones.

How high should the wall be?

The problem lies, in my view, in trying to understand to what you adapt TO; basically you have to decide how high the wall is supposed to be that you want to build. To know that, you also have to know about the seize of the thing that you want to keep out with your wall. If you regard the IPCC pronouncements as over-statements, that is as alarmist, you will build a lower wall. But how do you know that this is the right height or will be in the long run? That seems a real conundrum. This conundrum is compounded by the fact that both the seize of the wall (adaptation) and the seize of the thing the wall is supposed to keep out (which depends on mitigated or unmitigated climate change) are (at least for a little while) under your control. So, it seems to me that adaptation and mitigation are interdependent and it is good to know as much as possible about both. Can one actually do short-term adaptation without knowing about the long-term effects of climate change, and this includes the effects of climate change mitigation?

Image: Hadrian’s Wall Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics