Two kinds of adaptation

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

3 thoughts on “Two kinds of adaptation”

  1. “Those arguing that the fossil fuel greenhouse is unstoppable because of hard-wired human short-term greed, scientific illiteracy and failure of technological imagination may have a point, But think about this: Building seawalls, massively air conditioning new habitats inland and dealing with a flood of environmental refugees as the planet warms with take a huge chunk of additional energy in itself. If that energy comes from burning relatively abundant coal it will only worsen climate change and acidification of the oceans. All the more reason to press for a transformed global energy system. We may not succeed for technical or human behavioral reasons, but as scientists and engineers we ought to at least go down fighting.

    If we fail, I can imagine a thousand years from now a small fragment of humankind barely surviving the new planetary climate huddled round a fire in some remote northern latitude observing the night sky, subsisting perhaps as hunter-gatherers on a vastly different and biologically depleted planet listening to a tale vaguely recalled in ancestral memory by the local shaman.”

  2. United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.
    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.
    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.
    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees

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