Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Change or Die, or Something In Between

Climate change experts distinguish two broad categories in responding to climate change: mitigation (curtailing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (lessening the harmful impacts). While these categories blend together, experts often contrast them, not least because their scale differs.
Most mitigation projects tend to follow the moon-shot, Manhattan Project paradigm. Carbon sequestration, alternative energies sources, emissions trading – they are large, complicated and costly efforts. The sheer scale and expense of mitigation projects has stoked major objections.
If governments back the wrong option, hundreds of billions of dollars will go to waste. And even if policymakers choose well, lowering levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will still take decades. In fact, if we magically stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, we would still endure decades of climate change impacts in the form of sea-level rise, worsening extinctions, more extreme and unstable weather.
Adaptation provokes less political heat because it’s smaller. We adapt to climate locally and ad hoc. Changing building codes or flood protection in one community can dramatically reduce the impact of climate change. Adaptation includes many measures that have great value in themselves, such as improved monitoring and prediction, insurance, infrastructure bolstering, regulatory streamlining. Such improvements they often go unremarked because they’re confined to one area.
A decade ago (or more), environmentalists at NGOs disliked talk of adaptation. They viewed attention paid to adaptation as a defeat for the more important long-range work of mitigation. That attitude has diminished because by now even the most ardent environmentalists acknowledge that adaptation is a common ground for everyone.
In the decades ahead, mitigation and adaptation will start to converge in size. When it comes to mitigation, we’ll probably better off in the long run with twenty cheap projects rather than one big one that gobbles up all resources and attention. If most of the twenty projects fizzle, their failure will give us a better notion of which horses to bet on in the next round.
Meanwhile, we’ll need to minimize impacts on a much larger scale. Adaptation projects will probably get bigger.

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