current debate

Is adapting to climate change (really) our best choice?

érosion 1

The moderator’s opening remarks

Since the 1980s, scholars have debated whether decision makers should focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), reducing the risks posed by climate change (adaptation), or both. At first, mitigation prevailed in international climate policy, with a focus on reducing carbon emissions. In fact, early documents by the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) barely mentioned adaptation as a strategy to fight global warming. But in 2001, an IPCC report claimed that “adaptation is a necessary strategy at all scales to complement climate mitigation efforts.” Today, several experts accept that an “integrated portfolio” of mitigation and adaptation is required.
In a 2007 article in Nature, a team of experts argued that the “taboo on adaptation” should now be discarded. Adaptation, they said, is necessary for three main reasons. First, even if emissions are drastically cut today, carbon will remain in the atmosphere for decades (the “timescale mismatch”) and the effects on the climate will persist for years. Second, people suffer from several vulnerabilities not related to greenhouse gases (the “emissions fallacy”). Third, poor countries and societies—which suffer most from the effects of global warming, but are also less responsible for the emissions that cause it—will still need risk reduction measures for decades to come (the “remediation” imperative). Other defenders of adaptation have argued that people and communities have several “adaptive capacities” that can be deployed and enhanced to deal with risks and disasters. They see in adaptation capacities the opportunity to “bounce forward” and prevent catastrophic events caused by hazards. Finally, urban experts often argue that adapting infrastructure and buildings is more environmentally and socially sound than replacing them with new constructions.
But critics often challenge the intrinsic value of adaptation. Several scholars have argued that the adaptation narrative often focuses on technical solutions, failing to address the root causes of vulnerability, such as marginalization, exclusion, racism, colonialism, and other injustices. They also argue that an emphasis on physical adaptation to the environment has helped “depoliticize” risk reduction and disaster response. Disaster reduction should be seen not as a technical issue, but as a political one: one that produces winners and losers and affects territories and societies in radical ways. Many have found that even “green infrastructure” aiming to reduce risk has secondary effects, such as gentrification and displacement. (Mal)adaptation perpetuates unsustainable patterns of development and exacerbates inequality and environmental degradation. These scholars wonder who should pay for adaptation measures, which rarely benefit the poor and marginalized. Critics also lament that the “adaptation capacity” concept is often deployed as a framework to transfer responsibilities to individuals and the private sector. As such, adaptation contributes, at best, to a neoliberal conception of risk reduction and at worst to disaster capitalism. For them, the discourse of effective adaptation is rather dangerous, because it encourages industries and political elites to maintain current emission and pollution levels. Besides, sharing responsibility for climate response with individuals and communities (that are, or must become “adaptable”) dilutes the accountability of political and economic elites regarding pollution, disaster risk creation, and environmental degradation.
To tackle this debate, we have invited two internationally recognized experts on the effects of climate change and adaptation to defend each viewpoint.
Our panelists will present their most persuasive arguments over the next ten days, but the outcome of the debate rests in your hands. Don’t hesitate to vote immediately—you can always change your mind. Better yet, once you have cast your vote, add your voice to the debate and explain your decision.
emerging thought leader headshots june 2019
Deborah Harford argues that adapting to climate change is our best choice.
Deborah Harford is the Executive Director of the Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT), based in the Faculty of Environment at Simon Fraser University (SFU). As executive director of ACT, she is responsible for development of the initiative’s pioneering vision and its unique partnerships with the public and private sectors, as well as overall coordination and management of the program. Through Deborah’s efforts, ACT has created, and is a contributor to, a wide variety of networks between local, national and international climate change research practitioners, NGOs, industry representatives, all levels of government, First Nations groups, and local communities. Deborah recently served as a member of Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Expert Panel on Adaptation and Resilience Results.
Silja Klepp argues that adapting to climate change is not (necessarily) our best choice.
Silja Klepp is a full professor of geography at Kiel University, Germany where she directs the research group Social Dynamics in Coastal and Marine Areas. She is a member of the research cluster The Future Ocean, co-founder of the EnJust Network for Environmental Justice and advisory board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
In her current research on climate change migration and adaptation, she integrates post-colonial perspectives and critical theories in the study of climate change effects. She has worked and published on issues of climate justice and climate migration in Oceania, on boat people in the Mediterranean Sea and on EU refugee and border politics. She has conducted field research in Kiribati, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Italy, Libya and Malta.