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Momentum Shifts on Climate Adaptation

By Keith Kloor

A sign displayed at the 2010 climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, advocating for the development of an international fund to aid countries most affected by climate change. Credit: flickr/Oxfam International

Are we ready to get serious about climate adaptation? There are recent indications that a critical mass is building to elevate adaptation on par with mitigation. Last November, The Economist ran a long article on adaptation with this subhead: "Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it."

In January, David Roberts at Grist advocated in favor of a polemical shift:  

Back when I started covering my beat, it was conventional wisdom among greenies that it's best not to talk too much about adapting to climate change. The worry was that it might lure people into a false sense of security, get them thinking there's no need to cut emissions since they can adapt to whatever changes come.

I've come to think that this is a deeply counterproductive way of looking at things. In fact, adaptation may be the most effective way to approach climate change.

Now comes this provocative column in the Guardian today, by David G Victor, a professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He argues that international climate talks "must shift from focusing exclusively on controlling emissions to dealing with the reality that lots of climate change is inevitable. That means helping countries to adapt."

It bears mentioning that the zeitgeist on climate adaption (if it qualifies as such) did not suddenly materialize. In May of 2009 in Yale Environment 360, Bruce Stutz wrote

Major international organizations and governing bodies — including the European Union, the World Bank, and the IPCC — have called for the development of adaptation strategies. Prominent nonprofit groups also have announced major adaptation initiatives. Two years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation said it was creating a $70 million program to promote “climate resilience” (note the avoidance of the word “adaptation”) in the developing world. The Rockefeller program is designed to confront one of the major issues of adaptation: that the world’s poorer nations, which — with their low greenhouse gas emissions — have had little to do with creating the problem, may well be hit the hardest by global warming.

In the same article, Stanford University climatologist Stephen Schneider, who passed away last year, had noted: "Everyone is now talking about adaptation, but for all the talk there’s little actually being done."

Have we finally moved past the talk stage?