As names for concepts go, climate change “adaptation” and “mitigation” are terrible choices. When we think of responding to climate change, “adaptation,” while uninspiring, makes some sense. But “mitigation” is a head scratcher – not because it is incorrect (technically to mitigate is to make something less severe, serious, or painful), but because in everyday conversation it brings to mind building a new wetland to “mitigate” the damage done by a housing development.
But for climate change, it means something entirely different. And it is important that we understand the difference between these two strategies and how they are both necessary to create a holistic and effective response to climate change.
Mitigation means making climate change less severe by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, most commonly refering to carbon dioxide, which comes from a variety of sources, but most importantly from burning fossil fuels. Adaptation means making changes in how we run our communities, businesses, homes, and nations to reduce the risks to people and nature from the impacts of climate change – sea level rise, more frequent and intense storms, floods, droughts, and heat waves among others.
While climate change experts agree that we need both mitigation and adaptation, we often still hear the observation that adaptation makes it seem like we are giving up on mitigation. Many wonder whether all of our collective resources should go to mitigating (reducing emissions) to reduce the eventual extent of climate change, or whether some resources should be dedicated to adaptation so that we can reduce our risks from impacts that are already underway.
We might have legitimately focused solely on mitigation in 1990 when we were still close to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But now, at 400+ parts per million and clear impacts harming communities of all sizes, it is time to accept that we need both. Adapting to changing conditions is not “giving up” in the effort to curb climate change. Rather, it is accepting the reality that we did not do what was necessary when we had a real chance to head this off and now we have consequences – very real consequences for people’s lives and ecological systems.
Neither strategy works now on its own. We cannot adapt our way out of this. If aggressive efforts to curb emissions are not put in place immediately, we will reach a point where adaptation is simply ineffective. And if we focus entirely on reducing emissions, we will fail to protect people and the natural systems they rely on from the changes that are already in motion and can no longer be avoided.
In the same way that one cannot win a basketball game without both offense and defense, we cannot win against climate change with just mitigation or adaptation. Fortunately, we do not have to. Adaptation and mitigation each require something different from our communities and both can be moved forward simultaneously.
Much adaptation work is done at the community level through planning processes that determine where development will happen, how the community will prepare for and respond to emergencies, how infrastructure will be sited and designed, how people will be educated about impacts, and how it will manage resources, such as water and electricity.
Mitigation, on the other hand, focuses on energy efficiency in all sectors and the development of renewable energy. Municipalities are often spearheading these efforts in collaboration with business leaders and residents with each sector identifying how it can contribute to the effort to reduce emissions.
Mitigation and adaptation are both needed – everywhere. And they need to be developed with an eye to the other so that mitigation efforts are designed to complement adaptation efforts and vice versa. Many communities have started with just one or the other – now is the time to build out those efforts to create robust, comprehensive climate action plans that aggressively limit emissions while taking action to protect people and natural systems.
Communities just getting started should develop comprehensive climate action plans that deal with both mitigation and adaptation. It is only when this level of community-based work is happening nation-wide and around the world that we will stand a chance of winning against climate change.
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