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.


5 thoughts on “current debate

  1. I would say, adaptation is ‘the’ only choice. In particular, developing nations have no option left except adaptations, even though they haven’t contributed much to producing greenhouse gases. This causes ethical injustice in global climate change. Although adaptation seems to be the best choice, it is also an opportunity, as IPCC mentioned, i.e., along with the specific adaptation actions for an area we must capitalize on other benefits of such actions. Otherwise, choosing the only adaptation might be ineffective. For example, sea-level rise and salt-water intrusion have largely affected agricultural production in coastal areas of the southwest Bangladesh; and consequently farmers convert their lands into shrimp farms

    1. I agree with Tapan Dhar that adaptation to climate change for many communities is in itself not a choice, is a necessity. This has to do with what the moderator calls the “remediation” imperative in his opening. I believe adaptation is not something new. Societies around the world have always had the need to find ways to adapt to new conditions or shocks that arise from the environment or from within societies. If societies do not adapt they will not be able to continue thriving under the new conditions. Right now climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge we are facing as humanity and as the IPCC has recognised, especially in its 2018 special report “Global Warming of 1.5°C”, we can no longer think of stopping climate change. The IPCC is now urging the world to take measures so we can have a manageable climate change and not a catastrophic one. This means that change is going to happen in any scenario (related to the “timescale mismatch” mentioned by the moderator) and we need to adapt to the new climatic conditions. Therefore, I believe there is no choice, there is a necessity to adapt if we want to continue thriving and we need to begin understanding what are our best ways to do adapt.

      In order to understand which adaptation, of what and whom, and for what, we need to stop seeing the problem of climate change as either a purely technical one (based on positivistic philosophies) or as a purely political one (as critical research proposes). In my view, the problem of climate change is simultaneously both and therefore it needs to be seen and analysed as a socio-technical problem that requires socio-technical solutions. We need the proper technological tools to solve some issues but also the proper policies and human intentions to tackle the root causes of vulnerability in many of our societies if we really want to survive the challenge of climate change.

  2. By definition from the IPCC and UNDRR, climate change adaptation is a subset of disaster risk reduction with this conceptual framework applied across multiple sectors in the Handbook cited above

    More background at and

    Since we know that disaster risk reduction must sit within sustainability, including dealing with everyday risks, but disaster risk reduction cannot cover all of sustainability or all risks, then from the initial definitions, it follows that climate change adaptation is essential but much more is needed to achieve wider sustainability. Details and examples are given in the four references listed in this message.

  3. Gonzalo!

    Thank you once again for posing such an interesting question and bringing in motivational panelists to the debate! Especially now, when we are all affected by the Corona virus whether physically or psychologically…

    Well, I think adaptation alone is not enough. I see adaptation as a quick fix, a short-term perspective. It is a continuation of ecological modernisation reasoning, rather than a move towards ecological transformation. I would say to be effective, adaptation has to be accompanied by transformation of all systems – political, economic, social, cultural, and so on. As transformation does not happen in one day, it is therefore a long-term perspective. We cannot live within the same status quo by simply adapting to its consequences.

    I find it very interesting with current responces to Covid-19, how fast certain decisions could be taken and how slow it took for other decisions to materialise. I wonder whether our reactions to the current epidemic can teach us something about how we treat climate change and hence the idea and practice of adaptation.

  4. I choose no to the question. And the reason for this is because we have no choice. But let me introduce some thoughts on this topic with one of the main difference between risk management and resilience. If you are risk management minded, there is a fair chance that you will address this issue with an engineering approach. You will compare the different consequences of climate change and propose the most adapted solutions to mitigate the risk. And obviously, there is nothing wrong with this. Seen from the resilience perspective, you will need to include a prerequisite which is the ability to reconsider the logics of your system. In other terms, you will need to be motivated by the “bounce forward” option rather than “bounce back”. Because, we are living in this changing world where surprise is likely, and not always a good surprise as showed by the covid disaster, we need to seek for the long term solutions that will improve our collective wellbeing and well-living. I know that introducing such thoughts in the debate mitigation vs adaptation may look too theoretical for some people. But understanding the basics of sociology and philosophy is key to find the best balance between mitigation and adaptation . Paulo Freire and Emmanuel Levinas have undoubtedly something to teach us.

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