It’s Time to Focus on Adaptation

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There are two main approaches to tackling climate change. Mitigation involves cutting greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent climate change. Adaptation, on the other hand, doesn’t stop climate change from happening, instead, it focuses on managing the hazards created by global warming and narrowing its impacts. For example, a community at risk of flooding from sea level rise might build a sea wall to keep itself safe. Both mitigation and adaptation have strengths and weaknesses, and both are desperately needed to effectively combat climate change. However, mitigation measures appear to be prioritised by policymakers; 59% of the EU’s spending on combating climate change funded mitigation projects, and only 41% funded adaptation projects. This needs to change. Adaptation should be prioritised because we can no longer avoid the consequences of climate change. We can no longer mitigate what is already so vividly here. We are at a point of no return where the only hope for humanity will be to adapt to the irreversible damage that has already taken place. 

There is a strong argument that climate change is already happening. Natural hazards have been exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, making them more deadly and frequent. An example of a disaster thought to have been worsened by climate change is the 2015 heatwave in India and Pakistan. It caused significant loss of life, with 2500 dead in India and 2000 dead in Pakistan. Furthermore, news reports also highlighted the damage done to infrastructure, with the tarmac being melted off roads. Meanwhile, studies suggest that Hurricane Harvey, which left damage worth $125 billion, was shaped more powerfully due to rising sea temperatures caused by global warming, which has also made the likelihood of similar storms occurring three times higher. These disasters could have been made less severe by adaptation. Awareness campaigns targeting behavioural changes have been effective at reducing heat wave-related death in local areas. Applying these more broadly in countries at risk could prevent future casualties. Meanwhile, reports claim that the human and economic costs of Hurricane Harvey could have been reduced if strict urban planning and disaster zoning had been used. We need to increase spending in at-risk areas so that they can adapt to natural hazards which are already becoming more dangerous and more frequent because of global warming. 

More spending on adaptation would not only prevent deaths in the present but might also save more people in the long run. This might seem surprising at first glance. In theory, mitigation should be better able to prevent future impacts, since effective mitigation should prevent climate change from occurring in the first place. In a world with effective and committed attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this would be the case. However, in practice mitigation has proven highly ineffective and has done little to prevent climate change. UN reports suggest that we will not be able to meet the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming under 2 degrees celsius. Instead,  the median projection for global warming at the end of the century is an increase of 4 degrees, while the upper-end projection is an increase of 8 degrees. For context, a temperature increase of 10 degrees is thought to have caused the mass extinction event known as the Great Dying. We can therefore conclude that mitigation as it is practised today will not be enough to save us from the future impacts of climate change. In fact, our children and grandchildren could see a very dangerous level of heating in the coming century. If they are to not only survive but have a decent quality of life, significant adaptation will be necessary.

It could be counter-argued that the more reasonable course of action would be to call on policymakers to change their mitigation strategies. A dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could potentially avoid the worst effects of an overheated world, and perhaps even keep global warming under 2 degrees. In fact, some research suggests that there is still a 5% chance that we will be able to do this. Therefore, it seems reasonable to call for stronger mitigation measures to achieve this. It is true that we must not let the opportunity to meet the 2-degree target slip away. More mitigation is absolutely necessary. However, this does not mean that we should neglect adaptation measures. There is a 95% chance that we do not meet our climate targets, and surely this scenario should be prioritised given that it is by far the more likely outcome. 

Furthermore, adaptation measures have another key advantage. They depend less on external factors to be effective than mitigation strategies do. For mitigation to succeed, a large majority of countries must commit to it. Meanwhile, adaptation lets a nation or even a local area protect itself regardless of what others do. Furthermore, even a dedicated global commitment to mitigate climate change might not be enough to stop greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the existence of climate tipping points. As the IPCC explained, these are “a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganises, often abruptly and/or irreversibly.” For example, increased global temperatures could lead to melting permafrost. Permafrost contains greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere upon melting. This would lead to further climate change and hence further permafrost melting, resulting in a vicious cycle that would drive temperatures ever higher without human intervention. 

Tipping points are likely to become key drivers of climate change in the near future. Currently, permafrost contains double the amount of CO2 than does the atmosphere, meaning the impacts of its melting would be enough to drive climate change out of our hands. Not only would the potential impacts of tipping points be severe, but they are also fairly likely. The IPCC has said that these tipping points will probably occur somewhere between 1 and 2 degrees of warming. Meeting the ambitious target of 2 degrees warming still leaves us exposed to a very high risk of reaching a tipping point. Even more concerningly, some regions of our planet have already heated around 1.2 degrees since the pre-industrial era. Even if we stopped all human-made emissions tomorrow, there is still a chance that we would be too late. 

We can no longer see climate change as something which might happen if we are not careful. We must see it as our present and future reality. Mitigation is still important, and could still help us avoid the dangers of extreme global warming where temperatures rise a catastrophic 8 degrees. However, we are deceiving ourselves if we think it is likely that we will meet the 2-degree target, let alone the safer 1.5-degree goal. The reality is that we will face severe consequences in the form of frequent and powerful natural disasters. If we want to maintain equitable societies with a decent standard of living in a world with over 2 degrees of heating, we must start investing in adaptation now. 

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