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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?


By RickA (Eden Prairie/MN/55344)
on April 4th, 2011

Adaptation has certainly worked for the Netherlands.  And I know they have budgeted more money so they can handle 10,000 year flooding (should they occur).

It is hard not to see the benefit of spending a certain percentage of money on adaptation.

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By Jonathan Gilligan (Nashville TN)
on April 4th, 2011

Here’s the thing. Adaptation is essential, but politically it may be even less palatable than mitigation because mitigating emissions calls, at least in the short term, for spending money on new technology in the developed world, whereas serious adaptation calls for spending in the range of $75-100 billion dollars a year ( on the poorest nations of the planet, just to adapt to the next 50 years worth of climate change. If you ask the US Congress whether they’d rather spend tens of billions a year subsidizing wind farms and nuclear power in the US or helping third world nations adapt to droughts, floods, coastal hazards, etc., after they get done telling you they don’t want to do either, if they have to choose they’ll vote to spend the money at home.

Even if we look at mitigating third-world emissions vs. helping third-world countries to adapt, it’s easier to make a political case for subsidizing the export to India and elsewhere of clean energy tech made in the US than to pay for labor-intensive, low-tech vulnerability reduction projects abroad.

So although pretty much everyone sensible agrees that we need to move quickly on both adaptation and mitigation because neither will suffice on its own, I continue to see adaptation as even more politically impossible than mitigation.

Finally, if you’re going to talk about the fact that the adaptation zeitgeist did not suddenly materialize, you really ought to give a lot of credit to Roger Pielke, Jr., Gwyn Prins, Steve Rayner, and Daniel Sarewitz, who stuck their necks way out in 2007 with their Nature paper, “Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation.”

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By Stu
on April 5th, 2011

I think adaptation will only work if we approach with a large dose of uncertainty and humility about short and long term future possibilities. Nothing is permanent. Australia was assumed to be in a never-ending drought- under that assumption we were badly prepared for dealing with recent flooding events. The UK has also been suffering under the assumption that recent winters would be milder than usual. The climatologists may have it right and climate is much easier to foretell than weather. But it is the weather which hurts people and there are always surprises in weather.

‘Resilience’ is the word.

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By Roddy Campbell
on April 5th, 2011

Take a poor nation, who has never emitted, not guilty.

Offer them $X million in aid for adaptation, or expert help.

What do you do if their priority for money, capital, and expert help is different from óurs?  They might prefer clean water or electricity to emergency flood defences, or agricultural advice that makes a marginal difference to yields.

Isn’t it just aid, in the end?

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By Pascvaks
on April 5th, 2011

In truth, we know far more about “adaptation” than we know about “change”.  Indeed, there are far, far more who actually support “adaptation” day in and day out than there are of the more radical variety who want to re-make the World in their own image and into something quite different than it already is.  The extreamist “Changers” have, arguably, changed nothing to date and yet the inhabitants of the Third Rock seem to be doing a little more each day to “adapt” in a better direction; more enlightened if you will.  Social Engineering works best from the ground up and not from the United Nations or the EU or the White House down anyway.  Go figure.  Peoples is wierd.

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By Keith Kloor
on April 5th, 2011


You’re right to point to the Nature paper by Pielke, Jr. et al (which I’m familiar with) as a notable omission in my post.
But as you know from reading me at Collide-a-Scape, I’ve devoted lots of space to the views and work of Roger and some of his colleagues on that Nature paper.

I plan on continuing to do that here at Frontier Earth. In fact, look for a discussion on Roger’s new book, The Climate Fix, coming up soon.

And thanks, as ever, for your incisive contributions to the dialogue.

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By keith Kloor
on April 5th, 2011


You have a valid point, in that much of the aid perhaps defined under a adaptation rubric would also fit under different headings. At the end of the day, some of the measures you list would certainly go a long way towards helping people adapt to global warming.

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By Bart Verheggen (NL)
on April 5th, 2011

I guess David G Victor’ call to have adapatation also be a topic of Intl negotiations was already heard in Cancun, as a “Cancun Adaptation Framework” was decided on. It’s not as absent from the agenda as some people make it out to be.

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By Alder Stone Fuller (Lewiston Me 04240)
on April 5th, 2011

As Dianne Dumanoski points out in her book _The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth_, it’s not about adaptation, but adaptability.

Adaptation presupposes that we know what we are faced with so that we can adapt to it.

Adaptability acknowledges that we can’t know what specific conditions of heat, cold, drought and deluge we face, and that climate will be wildly fluctuating - as it was during the ice ages (relative to the very stable interglacial of the last 11,700 years), so we must be adaptable, as were our ice age ancestors.

I understand the distinction acutely because of my doctoral studies in evolution.

For more on this view, read this:

PS: I appreciate your blog. It’s one of the best on the net. Thanks.

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By Alder Stone
on April 6th, 2011

Thanks for your warm welcome, Keith.

I just registered here and am exploring the site more thoroughly. It’s more extensive than I had previously realized, with quite an impressive group of people behind it. I’ll continue to do so over the next period of days. I look forward to sharing some of my work here in coming months.

And yes, I highly recommend Dianne’s book. IMO, it’s the most important book on climate written to date. It became a centerpiece in my work and curriculum in fall, 2010, and remains so today. Add Fred Pearce’s _With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change_ and you’ve got a good, if sobering overview of our future.

I use both as texts in my seminars on Adaptability (Adaptability 1 & 2, respectively).

And to answer your last question in your OP, “Have we finally moved past the talk stage?”

In my experience, most have not. In fact, I’m finding only a tiny fraction of a fraction of people who are actually taking steps to increase their adaptability.

One of my seminars, Adaptability 5, that I’ve offered three times so far, is about how to do that.


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By Jonathan Gilligan
on April 6th, 2011

If we want to talk the praxis about adaptability and adaptation as well as the actual priorities of third-world nations it’s well worth reading Bangladesh’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (

I don’t disagree literally with anything Roddy says above, but worry that a reader could wrongly conclude from the manner in which he said it that there’s a dilemma between adapting to today’s environmental stresses and building resilience against future stresses due to climate change. As Roger wrote in 2007, and as Keith and Roddy reiterate above, there’s no such dilemma.

Today, coastal flooding is one of the deadliest natural hazards faced by third-world nations (think of the 1970 Bhola cyclone (300,000-500,000 dead), the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone (over 130,000 dead), or the 2008 Cyclone Nargis (again, over 130,000 dead); these three cyclones constitute half of the six deadliest natural disasters of the last 50 years). Rising sea levels will only make tropical cyclones deadlier even if their intensity does not change, so measures to adapt reduce vulnerability to coastal storm surge can be justified either as improving conditions today or adapting to climate change.

Similarly, climate change is expected to severely exacerbate today’s problems with access to safe drinking water (consider not only the problem of drought, but also Rita Colwell’s work connecting sea-surface temperatures to cholera ( and the problem of saline intrusion into coastal aquifers as sea-level rises). The Bangladesh Climate Action Plan specifically states that the nation expects that climate change will seriously hinder its efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goal for clean drinking water.

So whether we call it adaptation to climate change or improving resilience against today’s environmental stresses, many of the measures are identical and grossly underfunded. So my most pressing question is, regardless whether we call it climate adaptation or something else, how do we convince the rich nations to help the poor nations pay for addressing these problems.

What I see is discouraging: lots of people arguing about how to package or label the message and no one doing anything about funding the underlying work. Bjorn Lomborg spent ten years arguing that we’d be better off spending loads of money addressing disease and poverty in the third world than addressing climate change, but all that happened was we did neither. People who pose dilemmas between taking action on one pressing problem and taking action on another often have the effect only of paralyzing action on either problem. How do we break out of that trap?

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By Scott A Mandia (Long Island, NY 11784)
on April 7th, 2011

I worry that focusing on adaptation will decrease our efforts to mitigate.  Analogy: A person with heart disease can change his lifestyle (eat better and exercise more) or take medicine to deal with the pain and suffering.  His life is still going to be shorter and likely somewhat painful using the quick and easier pill fix but is that really the best approach to sell to this person given the healthier option? 

Additionally, ocean acidification and coral bleacing will continue to get worse without serious mitigation.  No way around that with emphais on adaptation.

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By Susan Anderson (Boston MA)
on April 8th, 2011

Sadly, as truth (sic) has come to be defined by those who yell the loudest and pander hardest, the real truth has had to take an increasingly distant back seat.  We’ve been trying to move from words to action since the 1970s, and history shows how successful that has been.

Of course we have to mitigate - the vastly most expensive option - because we can only face consequences after the fact with our know-nothing attitudes.

We also have to adapt, but that is still more expensive and shortsighted than dealing with the source of the problem.  It also has the liability that it doesn’t stop the accelerating consequences which by mid-century will have changed the world beyond recognition in a way that will then be both impossible to ignore and irreversible.

However, it is clear that we are now going in the wrong direction so addressing causes in time seems increasingly unlikely.  Builders only have to look at the terms of their mortgages (decades at most), so are not interested in costly improvements to deal with 6 foot sea level rise by 2100, for example, and at this point the 2-3 foot predictions seem increasingly conservative in the light of real-time evidence.

It’s interesting that we are all frightened by invisible radiation, but unable to consider the much more frightening invisible consequences of our expanding consumption and population model.  (This extends even to the point of refusing birth control to poor women who want it.  Once children are born social conservatives are much less considerate of their humanity, and god forbid those who have large amounts more than enough should share with those living on wages for really hard work that don’t pay for adequate housing, food, education, and health care.)

I understand and sympathize with different points of view; some of my radical enviro friends are too uncompromising, but they are in fact right.  The only option that really regards our future is to put our vast resources into rapid development of cheap clean energy and local delivery systems, and clean up our act.  Nonetheless, we have to deal with the world as we find it.  It’s too soon to give up until death is at the door.

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By Susan Anderson (Boston MA)
on April 8th, 2011

Oops, semantics.  When I wrote about “mitigation” I was talking about mitigation of consequences, not of causes.  I guess in the long defeat, I’ve pretty much given up hope on any current move to do the kind of worldwide mitigation of causes that is required.  Mitigation after a flood refers to helping the homeless and rebuilding infrastructure, and that is indeed the most costly way to deal with short-term consequences, which will become worse long-term consequences.  This really falls under “suffering” which was largely left out of the discussion, and is the worst and most likely case.

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By Tenney Naumer (Vitoria da Conquista, Bahia 45020-255)
on April 9th, 2011

This entire discussion misses the point that for severe climate change for many regions there is no such thing as adaptation.

Adaptation implies that you stick around and find a solution to what is hitting you. You know, like building dykes, finding alternative sources of water, making buildings stronger so that they can withstand increasingly severe storms, etc.

How do you adapt to a good portion of Florida being under water and most of the underground water being ruined by salt infiltration?

There is no adaptation.  You lost.

Let’s suppose a good portion of Texas becomes a dustbowl—nothing can be grown on it.  The dust storms and winds are so bad that solar and wind power plants become useless.

Another fail—you lost again.

What about northern Canada?  The melt will be so severe that the permafrost becomes perma-mush and nothing can be transported in or out by road.  Pipelines sink into the mush and break. 

Major fail—you lost again.

Let’s suppose that the warming becomes so severe in the Arctic that Greenland’s ice sheet loses so much of its mass due to melting that the thermohaline circulation goes wacky for a decade causing major disturbances to agriculture, leading to a 50% loss in global food production.

Do you adapt to that?  Nope.

Let’s suppose that the Midwest goes through a severe drought, then a 500-year flood, then a drought, then another 500-year flood, then another drought….

Can farmers adapt to that?  Just ask one.



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