When people talk about ‘adaptation‘ in the area of climate change, they usually mean all the activities by which human beings can reduce how vulnerable they are to the expected and unexpected consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. This includes everything from developing drought-resistant crops to designing infrastructure to be able to tolerate sea level rise.
In his essay “Ethics and Global Climate Change” University of Washington professor Stephen Gardiner highlights how human adaptation in response to climate change can take two forms: we can adapt to the unpredictable physical consequences that arise from humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we can set up regulatory structures that restrict greenhouse gas emissions, requiring firms and individuals to adapt their lifestyles and business practices to be appropriate in a carbon-constrained world.
As he points out, the latter type of adaptation is preferable to the former in many ways:
On the one hand, suppose we allow global warming to continue unchecked. What will we be adapting to? Chances are, we will experience both a range of general gradual climatic changes and an increase in severe weather and climate events. On the other hand, if we go for abatement, we will also be adapting but this time to increases in tax rates on (or decreases in permits for) carbon emissions. But there is a world of difference between these kinds of adaptation: in the first case, we would be dealing with sudden, unpredictable, large-scale impacts descending at random on particular individuals, communities, regions, and industries and visiting them with pure, unrecoverable costs, whereas in the second, we would be addressing gradual, predictable, incremental impacts, phased in so as to make adaptation easier. Surely, adaptation in the second kind of case is, other things being equal, preferable to that in the first.
Gardiner, Stephen. “Ethics and Global Climate Change” in Gardiner, Stephen et al. Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. p.12 (paperback)
That strikes me as an elegant way of presenting the situation in which humanity finds itself. Governments can either take the lead and drive a preferable kind of adaptation, or they can ignore the problem until unfolding natural events force a more painful sort.