Rethinking “Adaptation”

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking about the need to adapt to climate change, but I’ve also become increasingly uneasy about “adaptation” as a way to think about the situation.  One of the things I don’t like about the term “adaptation” is that it suggests that we actually can, at some expense, restore ourselves to the same position we would have been in without climate change.  For any given amount of climate change, we can do things that decrease the resulting harms (at a cost), but we can’t eliminate those harms.  Adapting to climate change is like “adapting” to a serious chronic disease — you can get by, with luck, but it’s still not like being healthy.

But there’s also an important conceptual issue.  The idea of adaptation assumes that the world will go along more or less as it always has, except that we’ll take some specific actions due to climate change to neutralize its effects. This makes sense if we think global warming is just a marginal change.  But given our current trajectory, climate change, adaptation, and mitigation may go beyond marginal impacts. Climate change may well have wide societal effects, and mitigation efforts themselves could be major enough to shift the economy.  Moreover, both mitigation efforts and actions to address climate-based risks will have environmental impacts of their own.  “Adaptation” suggests a marginal quality to climate change that may be quite misleading.

As a comparison, suppose we were to ask which policy decisions in L.A. were adaptive responses to the existence of automobiles.  It would really be a kind of meaningless question in the sense that everything about L.A. has been shaped by automobiles, and everything people do is tied up, one way or another, with the city that cars have created. Asking which current L.A. policies are “adaptations” to the automobile is almost a meaningless question.

I hope we can keep climate change down to a level that limits impacts on society to easily identified marginal changes — but that’s far from being a sure thing. In the worlds of 2060 or 2100,  where people live, what they do for a living, the rate of economic growth, even the alignment of political interest groups, could be shaped by a different climate, by an economy with a different energy base, and a built environment that has changed due to climate risks. In such a world, it makes little sense to talk about adaptation costs, because the baseline of a world free from climate change has become irrelevant.


Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Rethinking “Adaptation””

  1. Hi Dan –

    I agree with your premise: adaptation cannot substitute for mitigation. However, your reference to Los Angeles is off-the-mark — perhaps you’re unaware of the progress that’s been achieved.

    First, our organization, Climate Resolve, is moving a new policy to convert LA’s 6,000 miles of heat-absorbing asphalt streets into “cool streets.” Coupled with the soon to-be-enacted cool roof policy we anticipate cooling down entire neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

    Second, a bond measure is being prepared for the November 2014 ballot that will convert thoroughfares in San Fernando Valley to capture stormwater runoff. (Increasing local water supply is key to enhancing the region’s resillience.)

    Third, on the mitigation front, you failed to mention LA’s massive investment in new transit. In 2008, voters approved $40 billion to expand public transit. A new measure, being developed by MoveLA and others, will further expand rail and active transportation. (Climate Resolve recently helped Metro with their landmark climate adaptation policy. A first in the nation.)

    Last, on the subject of active transportation, which can build resilience, again LA is undergoing a profound transformation. Bike lanes are being stripped throughout the region. And the CicLAvia events, which Climate Resolve helped create, consistently recruits over 100,000 people to each event– blowing away all other open street events in the nation. CicLAvia’s massive popularity is a clear demonstration of the LA public’s desire to create a more transit friendly city.


  2. Dan,

    I’ve been a fan of your columns since I landed in the East Bay from Washington, DC not long ago. My impression is that they are thoughtful, well informed, and a ‘force for good.’ However, you’ve missed the boat (so to speak) on this one. Even a quick look at the websites of NOAA and EPA on climate adaptation is enough to convince the lay person that noone in the federal government believes that the impacts of climate change will be marginal. For ex., see the NOAA document “Adapting to Climate Change: A Planning Guide for State Coastal Managers, Chap. 2, pp. 8 – which is a chart listing the potential rise in sea levels by the year 2100. The language in the guide is alarmist, as it should be…the nation’s coasts are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and are already feeling its effects. The guide was developed to help managers of coastal resources start planning NOW for certain changes to come — e.g. don’t develop near the coastline, don’t locate critical infrastructure where it is vulnerable to increasingly powerful storms. At the same time, noone is suggesting that crucial dollars be siphoned away from climate change mitigation – just that people need to understand and plan for the reality of higher seas, more frequent, and more powerful storms, etc.

  3. Dan,

    Thanks for this.

    You make an important and interesting point.

    At the same time, it’s important to remember that we are all currently adapted to the climate around us – and pay costs for it. Just to take one example, your and my water supplies are adaptations to the climate that we live in – and they are expensive both in economic and environmental terms. Very often, the worst climate change adaptation problems occur where people are living in ways that are not terribly well adapted to the current climate and where the change that is occurring makes a bad problem that much worse.

    My question is whether it makes more sense to make the changes in our adaptation the central issue or the fact that we are maladpated to begin with.


    1. I’m pleased that this post has sparked such interesting discussion. One question is whether we should make decisions without taking future changes into account. The answer t that is obviously “no.” We’d be fools to ignore impending changes in climate. Cities such as Los Angeles are sensibly responding to this problem, as is the current Administration. At this point, we can still separate the things that we’re doing differently because we’re no longer in the pre-industrial climate. As long as we can make that separation, the term ‘adaptation’ is still useful. But we are likely to get to the point where so much as has changed over enough time that we can no longer separate out changes that are traceable in some way to climate change because its influence will be so pervasive. At that point, we won’t be “adapting” to climate change; we’ll just be trying to make the best decisions we can in a world that has diverged strikingly from the pre-industrial norm. Just to be clear, I wasn’t questioning the actions that people are calling adaptation, only to ask whether that’s the most useful language for discussing the situation.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more