Is adapting to climate change (really) our best choice?
Winners of the “best contribution” awards:
The committee members (Deborah Harford, Silja Klepp, Gonzalo Lizarralde, David Wachsmuth, and Mauro Cossu) acknowledge the engagement of all participants and their thoughtful contributions to this debate. They determined that the winners are:
Oleg Zurmühlen First prize – best comments
Steffen Lajoie Second prize
Duvan Hernán López Third prize
Juan Sebastian Canaveral Herrera Fourth place
Congratulations to winners!
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.
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. A widely sought-after speaker and facilitator, Deborah contributes to a wide variety of national and international adaptation processes and initiatives on an ongoing basis. Recent examples of engagements and partnerships include Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Expert Panel on Adaptation and Resilience Results (2018), the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Canada’s Top Climate Change Risks (2019), the Technical Working Group of the Canadian Centre for Climate Services, the Infrastructure & Buildings Working Group of Canada’s National Adaptation Platform, and the Expert Adaptation Panel of the new Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.
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.
The proposer’s opening remarks.
Adaptation to climate change is already an urgent priority around the world for communities, individuals, ecosystems and economies coping with flooding, drought, heatwaves, wildfires, and their effects on health, equity, infrastructure, biodiversity, and socio-economic systems.
The root cause of the spread of viruses such as COVID-19 is habitat loss due to carbon-intensive development, which encroaches on ecosystems, displacing species already at risk from climate warming. But the terrible disruption caused by this pandemic will not compare to the global challenges for water, food, and energy security, health and wellbeing, business continuity and supply chains, and aggravated geopolitical instability that climate change will cause in coming decades. Slower onset impacts, such as sea level rise and melting glaciers, will devastate coastal and delta communities and freshwater supply. Displacement of people and impacts on society’s most vulnerable will be among the biggest concerns.
These impacts will increase between now and 2050, even if we reduce emissions. The results of our efforts will become more visible after this, with high emissions trajectories threatening runaway climate change. Adaptation therefore cannot be separated from emissions reduction; the two should be planned in an integrated manner known as “low carbon resilience.” Likewise, the goal of adaptation is not to exist as a separate stream of research, planning and action—although these things are needed to ensure we understand how it can work.
Adaptation’s central purpose is to embed strategic responses to climate change risks into overall policy, planning and actions—a process known as mainstreaming—in order to reduce vulnerability and build societal resilience. This risk management approach is essential if we are to minimize climate damage to planning for global health, economies, infrastructure, ecosystems, and community wellbeing. Effective adaptation acknowledges that addressing poverty, health, and equity is key to building resilience, and supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai and Paris Agreements, and the Aichi biodiversity goals.
Luckily, humans are extraordinarily adaptive creatures, and we have solid climate science to support decision-making for place-based and systemic responses based on community values and other priorities. These include “incremental” approaches that accommodate and reduce impacts, and “transformative” adaptation that re-imagines systems. In one inspiring example of doing both, Bangladeshi experts are leading their country’s response to sea level rise, helping coastal farmers transition to salt-tolerant crops while preparing their children to do different jobs from their parents as well as updates to inland cities in which they can relocate.
Adaptation is evolving rapidly as we learn more about what works and what needs to improve. Emerging focus areas include co-creation of solutions with Indigenous peoples, infrastructure retrofits and managed retreat, understanding gender impacts and mental health needs, nature-based solutions, and more.
Collaboration on development of these solutions is accelerating at all levels of society around the world. What we put in place now—from policy to buildings—will be continually tested by climate impacts. If we work together to build widespread low carbon resilience, we can strategically benefit a wide range of social and economic priorities.
The opponent’s opening remarks.
During my research in Kiribati, Oceania, I saw a signboard in the main office of the Kiribati Adaptation Program—which is financed by the World Bank and other international donors—that said “Adapt or Perish.” This imperious statement is symbolic of the way climate change adaptation has become a new “imperative” for the Global South. Narratives of climate change adaptation are increasingly based on urgency and the need for a certain kind of “expert” knowledge to realize “successful” and “effective” adaptation. Otherwise, populations will be “doomed.”
The shift in climate change governance from mitigation to adaptation (as explained by Gonzalo Lizarralde in his opening remarks) is, in itself, problematic. In the 2000s, adaptation came to be seen as an alternative policy to difficult and insufficient mitigation efforts. It also became an area in which international organizations, consultants, and NGOs found rich business opportunities. Today, we have the same kind of Western technical-fix projects in development aid that were so highly criticized in the 1980s and 1990s.
In my fieldwork interviews, I often heard citizens complain that consultants didn’t listen to the I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati). Consultants instead followed their own frameworks and cultural practices, and often responded to profit-oriented objectives. Most climate adaptation consultants are “ticking their boxes,” as one of my research partners in Kiribati said. They create knowledge and practices that must fit into tight schedules (1–2 years), produce specific outcomes, and be marketable.
An “adaptation” industry has been established—one in which social contexts, cultures, and power-relations on the ground are rarely considered. In this industry, non-Western ontologies considered far from the logic of mainstreamed adaptation efforts are ignored, especially in international cooperation. Today, whole development programs have been reframed to focus on technology-driven adaptation measures. Why? Because climate adaptation is a more profitable market than dealing with other pressing problems, such as domestic violence. Moreover, many of us expect to obtain measurable results, even if they are modest, than more ambitious yet intangible outcomes, like (for example) developing more holistic understandings of resilient communities.
Several stakeholders are trying to work differently, applying new methods and frameworks. Daniel Morchain of IISD (International Institute of Sustainable Development), for instance, is experimenting with theatre play. Daniel and his group are trying to empower the most vulnerable and encourage more holistic and emancipatory approaches. According to Daniel, “Adaptation must be transformative, or else it is dangerous.”
I agree. Adaptation can be dangerous if it does not contribute to the urgently needed socio-ecological transformation in the field, where we see the failures of our Western lifestyles most clearly. Otherwise, adaptation will only perpetuate current institutions and the status quo. As long as climate change adaptation interventions are drafted in the headquarters of Western organizations without consideration of cultural aspects or the power relationships within and between communities, the risk of inflicting (epistemic) violence and injustices on the most vulnerable remains high. We need a new way of thinking and acting, based on solidarity, connectivity, and the idea of transformative change. And we need it not only within a nation-state system, but as a community of human and non-human beings connected in myriad ways in this Anthropocene epoch.
The proposer’s rebuttal remarks.
Investment in adaptation is gaining momentum globally because we have failed to stop climate change. This is a problem facing everyone; however, perhaps the most painful injustice of this failure is that the lowest emitters will suffer the worst impacts. For instance, sea level rise resulting from heat accumulated in oceans means that small island states like Kiribati face the most unimaginable disruption of all—the disappearance of their homes and ancestral lands. While cutting emissions will slow rising tides, this destabilization is already happening, along with the difficult process of developing responses. As Dr. Klepp notes, if these efforts are poorly designed, they can add insult to injury.
We have seen similar issues in Canada’s Arctic, where climate change impacts are rapidly emerging and heavily affecting the Inuit peoples who have lived there since time immemorial. While Indigenous peoples are innately resilient, their capacity to adapt has been damaged by the legacy of colonization; moreover, many communities have voiced dissatisfaction about researchers from urban centres studying them and leaving without providing tangible benefit.
However, rather than refuting the need for adaptation, Dr. Klepp’s opening statement makes an excellent case for reconsidering how it is conceptualized and carried out. In many ways, the critique she outlines is understood and being acted on. There are numerous adaptation projects being led by champions in the developing world that model progressive approaches, transformative and otherwise, including the mainstreaming of adaptation into other actions.
As the urgency to adapt grows, biases and flaws in how adaptation is funded, researched, planned and implemented are being addressed, with growing understanding of the need to prioritize approaches underpinned by equity, social justice, co-creation, and decolonization. The need for adaptation can become an opportunity for mobilization of better ways of working, and living.
This evolution is mirroring advances such as the global movement to recognize the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For instance, in Canada we are engaged in a Truth and Reconciliation process that is gradually addressing the damage done by colonization. In 2019, as part of a panel charged with developing criteria for Canada to measure progress on adaptation, I and the panel’s Inuit representative co-authored a chapter on Translation of Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science into Action. Our report showcased the fact that Indigenous knowledge holds great value for adaptation as it evolves, and that western science and research capacity are equally useful if they are used in adaptation funding, policy and projects that have been respectfully co-designed with Indigenous experts. We identified the need to support this collaborative approach through investment in building awareness, capacity, relationships, and support for knowledge and solution development by and for the people who are experiencing climate changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting inequalities in the global system in ways that hold significant lessons for next steps on climate action. It is more essential than ever that we work respectfully together to ensure that social justice and equity underpin adaptation in all contexts going forward.
 Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience Results (2018). Measuring progress on adaptation and climate resilience: recommendations to the Government of Canada. Ottawa, Ontario: Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The opponent’s rebuttal remarks.
Given the inspiring comments posted online, the opening remarks written by my “opponent,” Deborah Harford, and the related literature, clearly many of us agree that climate change adaptation (CCA) involves problematic knowledge-power relations that often hinder a fair and transparent outcome.
So, if we all agree, why is it so hard to implement fairer CCA interventions?
Climate change adaptation is definitely a social justice problem, not just an environmental one. This means that the challenge starts with thinking differently about our human-environment relations. We have lost our capacity to think of human beings as a fundamental part of nature since the so-called Enlightenment. Fortunately, in recent decades, literature from various angles has significantly helped us to think of naturecultures, socionatures—or, as Donna Haraway puts it, the Chthulucene—in a much more inclusive and engaged manner.I want to suggest another perspective for thinking of climate change adaptation in a way that questions the traditional and problematic knowledge-power relations: Environmental Justice, which could help make CCA more just and transformative.
Environmental justice is rooted in environmental and civil rights activism and was always connected to the struggle of indigenous and first nation groups that seek a fairer distribution of environmental goods and bads. This means that from the beginnings of the EJ movement in the 1980s, ontologies that help us to think of naturecultures in a more inclusive way have played a crucial role. Since then, environmental justice has gone a long way in academia and among scholar activists, and has embraced a threefold (analytical) perspective:
1. Dimensions of distributive justice can help us think of who is included and who is excluded in the “community of justice” regarding CCA measures. To put it more bluntly, who will profit from adaptation money? Is it the most vulnerable? The most affected? Or elites that are closest to the international aid community?
2. Procedural justice aspects remind us to ask: Who has participated in the planning and realization of adaptation measures? Who has access to decision-making and to forums where a just way of adapting might be discussed?
3. The third fundamental claim in environmental justice is justice as recognition, as introduced by David Schlosberg. It is closely connected to both distributive justice and procedural justice and aims at recognizing different ontologies and forms of knowledge. If we understand CCA as a complex set of narratives and practices, we might understand recognition as the most important tool to overcome the unfair knowledge-power relations that are inherent to CCA. And to reply to my dear “opponent” Deborah, this approach means the co-production of knowledge does not merely pay lip-service (as we often experience it today), but acknowledges adaptation as a messy, challenging social process that might have a truly open and transformative outcome.
I believe that systematically applying an environmental justice perspective could help us enormously to see injustices in adaptation more clearly, and to tackle them in a radical way.
 Schlosberg, D. (2007). Defining Environmental Justice. Oxford University Press.
The proposer’s closing remarks.
Climate change is a social and political problem, and must be addressed as such. Adaptation is one key piece of a broader suite of social transformations that are needed in which equity and justice need to be at the forefront.
We have failed to reduce GHG emissions to the point where impacts will be negligible. We will have to adapt one way or another—either reactively, through piecemeal, haphazard responses that entrench conditions that create vulnerability, or pro-actively, as part of broader social transformation.
As such, adaptation raises a material and moral question: how can we maintain fidelity to principles of social and environmental justice while working in the field at intersections of knowledge and power? Who defines adaptation, what adaptation measures will be deployed, and for whom?
I believe that humans have the agency to create change in the broader structures that constrain us. Our ability to understand the likely impacts of climate change gives us what I call the adaptive advantage: the opportunity to plan now, rather than be blindsided, potentially alleviating suffering and hopefully initiating transformative change that addresses multiple priorities.
Three priorities must inform adaptation to ensure that it is not just a “technological fix” nor perpetuation of developed-world dominance, nor a purely anthropogenic-focused approach, but becomes a path toward truly sustainable development.
One: we must shift from separating adaptation and mitigation to an integrated focus I call “low carbon resilience.” For example, as flooding and heat events increase, there is a danger that large-scale, emissions-intensive grey infrastructure will be the default solution. This is not the kind of response that we want. Rather, we need to consider adaptation and mitigation together in a more holistic approach.
Two: climate change threatens countless species. Ecosystem health underpins our survival. We must advance the necessity of nature-based solutions as a dual mandate to protect humans and ecosystems and consider the protection of nature in its own right.
Three: if people remain vulnerable, due to poverty, poor health care, and other social and political factors, our efforts will fail. While climate change creates new problems such as changing sea levels, it principally worsens existing problems. Acknowledging social justice and equity, and resourcing the capacity needed for effective responses, must become a central priority of organizations and researchers working on adaptation. We must work to act as allies, building partnerships that reflect lessons learned. This includes supporting people in the global South, local communities, and Indigenous peoples to direct the structure and design of adaptation funding, principles, planning and implementation.
If we action these three priorities, we may contribute to the development of transformative solutions based on principles that avoid “unsustainable development scenarios while meeting the needs of the disadvantaged.”
 Harford, D. & Nichol, E. (2016). “Low Carbon Resilience: Transformative Climate Change Planning for Canada.” Vancouver, BC: Simon Fraser University.
 Prieur-Richard, A.H. et al. (2019). “Global Research and Action Agenda on Cities and Climate Change Science.” World Climate Research Programme.
The opponent’s closing remarks.
One key message of this debate is that it is crucial to re-politicize climate change adaptation (CCA) as a knowledge power nexus at various scales.
Deborah illustrated how she and her colleagues are helping heal the injuries of colonialization in Canada. To co-operate in settings of post-colonialism or settler communities means to look at the history of violence through colonial policies and practices. These policies have often destroyed communities, through, for instance, abusive education systems. Enhancing community resilience in these cases often requires the empowerment and organization of communities. I would like to refer here to the work of Canadian scholar Emilie Cameron, who showed how researchers’ understandings of the terms “indigenous” and “local” can hinder political change and organize CCA measures in backward ways.
Another point where I want to influence this debate in my closing remarks is the role of science and scientists. It is good that more (climate) scientists are acknowledging the political dimensions of climate change, by making public statements or engaging as scholar activists. The reflexivity and critical approach that we show in our research is necessary for our own work and engagement: What role does our work play in society, and how do we deal with the consequences?
Recent years have seen a major rise in attention paid to models of climate change and the socio-economic processes linked to it. For example, greenhouse gas emission projections like the representative concentration pathways (RCPs) now play a huge role in IPCC recommendations and general policymaking. But although the people publishing these pathways are often convinced that they are providing “neutral” or “objective” guidance for policymaking, this is not the case. On the contrary, Beck and Mahony (2017) have shown that reliance on RCPs has political implications, because it makes it harder to “think out of the box” or in a radically transformative way (for instance, when politicians consider a narrow range of scenarios that does not include alternative solutions like de-growth).
I wish that we, as scientists, would not only ask for better predictions or more positivist science. I believe we need much more emphasis on the power relations that lie behind technical solutions and policy, such as UNFCCC negotiations. We need critical research on how we are locked in unsustainable pathways. Unfortunately, my impression is that we are going the wrong way. It seems that statistics, figures, and models are so ontologically powerful that, in the realm of climate change and of human environment relations more generally, measurements and models are taking over the research questions that would be better answered by interdisciplinary teams—teams that should include scholars from critical social sciences and the humanities. We are witnessing, for instance, the difficulty of social science research proposals to obtain grants in interdisciplinary funding calls. These observations should not lead us to inaction or disappointment. But they should remind us all that we have to work together in a courageous way. We should not shy away from the difficulties of inter-and transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge, but should find more inclusive, creative, and reflexive ways to work together. Moreover, we should place ourselves in the joint political fight against climate change and seek fairer ways of adapting to it. The network for environmental justice EnJust is a way to come together as critical scholars, activists and practitioners. You are all welcome!
 Cameron, E.S. (2012). “Securing indigenous politics: A critique of the vulnerability and adaptation approach to the human dimensions of climate change in the Canadian Arctic.” Global Environmental Change, 22 (1), 103–114.
 Beck, S. & Mahony, M. (2017). “The IPCC and the Politics of Anticipation.” Nature Climate Change 7, pp. 311–313.
The moderator’s closing remarks