It’s a powerful bit of language. It makes clear that not acting is itself a choice — a choice in favor of suffering. But in another way, Holdren’s formulation obscures an important difference between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate effects) and adaptation (changing infrastructure and institutions to cope with climate effects). It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.
Carbon is global, adaptation is local... [M]itigation is fundamentally altruistic, other-focused.
...Adaptation is nearly the opposite. It is action taken to protect oneself, one’s own city, tribe, or nation, from the effects of unchecked climate change. An adapta
tion dollar does not benefit all of humanity like a mitigation dollar does. It benefits only those proximate to the spender. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on mitigation is disproportionately preventing suffering among future Bangladeshis. A New Yorker who spends a dollar on a sea wall is preventing suffering only among present and future New Yorkers. The benefits of adaptation, as an iterative process that will continue as long as the climate keeps changing, are both spatially and temporally local....