Climate Change Mitigation vs. Adaptation: A Question of Morality

Pictured above: 1200's Gothic sculpture over the Portal of the Last Judgment at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Archangel Michael weighs the souls for entry into Heaven, while Satan applies pressure to one side tipping the morality scales in his favor.

Environmental activist and author David Roberts has written extensively on the morals involved in climate issues.  One such article is Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent.  Let's look at a few key points from that piece in Grist Magazine online...

"Climate hawks are familiar with the framing of climate policy... [w]e will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix....

It makes clear that not acting is itself a choice — a choice in favor of suffering.

But in another way, [that]  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

With every ton of carbon we emit, we add incrementally to the total concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  That total is what determines the effects of climate change.  By emitting ton of carbon we are, in a tiny, incremental way, harming all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Conversely, however, every ton of carbon emissions we prevent or eliminate benefits, in a tiny, incremental way, all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable."

This is an important point to consider.  Mitigation directly addresses the root problem and helps everybody.  Adaptation assumes there is nothing you can do to stop it so you better make preparations for the coming climate onslaught and selfishly attempt to reduce its associated suffering you might have to endure.

"Adaptation is... action taken to protect oneself, one’s own city, tribe, or nation, from the effects of unchecked climate change.  An adaptation dollar does not benefit all of humanity like a mitigation dollar does.  It benefits only those proximate to the spender....

One obvious implication of this difference [adaptation versus mitigation] is that, to the extent spending favors adaptation over mitigation, it will replicate and reinforce existing inequalities of wealth and power. The benefits will accrue to those with the money to pay for them."

Ponder that fact for a moment.  Adaptation is selfish while mitigation is altruistic.  Adaptation will serve to perpetuate the social inequalities already found in society, yet now it will with climate change and its coming environmental wrath take that suffering to an entirely new level.

Roberts goes on to suggest that this moral compromise is going to become more and more attractive to both conservatives and climate moderates as the climate situation worsens...

"It is no accident that the current position among 'reform' conservatives — who have finally become embarrassed by the near-universal climate denial and conspiracy theorizing in the Republican Party — is that... it would be too expensive to prevent it, so we’ll just adapt.  I predict that when climate becomes an unavoidable political issue in the U.S., as it inevitably will, this will be an extremely popular position on the right and an alluring one across the center as well.

If you believe, as conservatives do, that market capitalism is meritocratic, that it distributes benefits based on hard work and pluck, then it follows that rich people deserve the advantages they can afford.  They earned them.  One of the advantages rich people (and cities and countries) can afford is protection from the vicissitudes of climate change.  We gotta protect our own.  Adaptation will strongly appeal to fearful, nationalistic, revanchist personality types and, in the U.S. at least, most of those folks are conservatives."

Let's not forget to get rich while compromising our morals on climate change and forsaking the poor...

"Climate change is also going to produce a large and powerful adaptation industry."

In an earlier Grist article entitled Balancing climate pragmatism with moral clarity, Roberts appropriately ends his thoughts on climate change morality with...

"Great social transformations require great social movements, and great social movements require a moral imperative.

That’s what climate change is: a moral imperative, a threat to the lives and welfare of our children and generations that will follow.  That just isn’t the kind of thing you keep quiet about."

So, as a moral imperative, how can we advocate for climate change adaptation?  Inherent in adaptation efforts is the acceptance that we cannot successfully mitigate emissions to cure the problem for all humanity's sake.  I suggest that is not the case.  I suggest we can.

If so-called "climate action" is focused action on mitigating emissions and removing the huge public incentives paid to fossil fuel companies to create those emissions, I think we could do more than meet the Paris goals.  Further, if those corrupt fossil fuel incentives were legislatively directed towards mandatory use of renewables, I think we could reverse the course of global warming and immeasurably improve the human condition.

With regard to climate action policy at MIT, I ask... has the "manus" now become de manu diaboli, tipping the morality scales in favor of adaptation and resiliency versus emissions mitigation and fossil fuel industry divestiture?



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In Europe (I live in Belgium)

In Europe (I live in Belgium) there is not much straight climate denial, but I do notice that the right wing politicians tend to speak in favor of adaptation and against mitigation. Doubtlessly, if climate change denial ever is conquered in the US, the same will happen over there.

I believe this is not only driven by the idea: “let’s save ourselves” instead of “let’s save the world”.

Both “solutions” are also different because the bill ends up in different places.

After all, mitigation would be paid by the polluters. Effective mitigation will always entail discouraging the use of fossil fuels, either by a price on carbon, or by direct regulation. On the other hand, adaptation would be paid by the tax payers.

So are right wing politicians driven by their ideology, or do they want to protect the profits of the fossil fuel industry when they plea for adaptation ?

Sarah Lipuma's picture

Hello Rick. I think that the

Hello Rick. I think that the problem with calling adaptation immoral and selfish, is that communities, rich and poor, will need to adapt to climate change, even if all greenhouse gas emissions stop right at this very moment. The Earth will continue warming, weather patterns will continue changing, the seas will continue rising. So, it is an imperative to plan to adapt to climate change. I don't think one unit of adaptation is interchangeable with one unit of mitigation. They're both necessary, to lessen, as the writer calls it, suffering. Additionally, a community or city adapting to climate change could be a learning opportunity for other areas to follow and emulate, customizing it to their own situation. Adaptation does not need to be selfish protection, if regional planning as well as community-based planning are implemented. 

Rick Shankman's picture

Sorry Sarah, I just can't

Sorry Sarah, I just can't agree on this one.  For me, it's just plain immoral, selfish and shortsighted.

Besides, when somebody figures out how to "adapt" to 21 TRILLION GALLONS of water over the second largest petrochemical center in the world, you let me know.

With global annual subsidies totalling over 5 TRILLION DOLLARS to fossil fuel companies to continue polluting, anything other than 100% mitigation efforts is dilution of purpose.  That dilution/distraction of the climate community has already gotten us where we are today.  It might make a few adaptation companies really rich, but it won't help the planet a bit.

Rick Shankman's picture

Thanks Curt.  I thought you

Thanks Curt.  I thought you and Dave would appreciate a David Roberts inspired post.

With regards to Roberts' conclusions in the first Article I cited, I would have emphasized a slightly different portion of that paragraph you chose...

"In short, mitigation is fighting for attention and dollars against much mightier foes like indifference and narrow self-interest.  It needs all the help it can get."

Who are those indifferent and self-interested foes?  The adaptation camp?

Is it not logical to assume that in Roberts' frustration (after lengthy discussions about the immorality of adaptation in place of mitigation), he finally must say that circumstances now require adaptation because apathy and inaction have pushed the climate over the tipping point?

That is where Roberts and I differ.  I think $5.3 TRILLION annually in renewables funding and laws to stop the madness can bring us back from the brink. But just for today, I would happily settle for one renewables-burning CUP campus power plant at MIT.

Curt Newton's picture

Thanks for this post, Rick. I

Thanks for this post, Rick. I really appreciate your bringing David Roberts' long history of thinking and writing on these issues.  And I respect your coming to a somewhat different conclusion about what it all means in terms of behaviors.   

Roberts' conclusion in that first linked article is worth including (emphasis added is mine).

Both mitigation and adaption are necessary at this point. But for every day mitigation is delayed, the need for adaptation grows, most especially in places that will depend on the ongoing largesse of wealthier nations to pay for it. That’s not a recipe for egalitarian outcomes. In short, mitigation is fighting for attention and dollars against much mightier foes like Indifference and Narrow Self-Interest. It needs all the help it can get.

Roberts' Vox post today rolls up a great Tweetstorm from yesterday, building on these themes in light of Hurricane Harvey. Highly recommended. 

Rebuilding after Harvey will be a test case — adaptation in action. Let’s watch to see if it’s done in a wise and equitable way. My hopes are not high.

Without mitigation, if we just let climate change get worse and worse, adaptation is only going to look uglier and uglier, more and more of a euphemism for abandoning poor people to their suffering.

You write:

So, as a moral imperative, how can we advocate for climate change adaptation?  Inherent in adaptation efforts is the acceptance that we cannot successfully mitigate emissions to cure the problem for all humanity's sake.  I suggest that is not the case.  I suggest we can.

I'm afraid I don't share your faith that we can get there with just mitigation, even in the most optimistic conceivable transition. Too much momentum, too much CO2 and warming already in play, to free us from the imperative of simultanteous vulnerability reduction. Maybe if the world had heeded James Hansen back in 1986... It'll take titanic efforts to make adaptation bend toward justice, but I think it's gotta be done.

MIT professor Larry Susskind's experience is that adaptation, built on locally-based conversations, will bring more people into climate action. It's immediate, it's in their backyard, and for better or worse this gets them engaged. See Larry's ClimateX video.  I've heard that the long Climate Ready Boston planning process, with numerous neighborhood sessions, successfully reached way beyond the usual climate suspects. I think Larry has got a strong point.

As individuals, we can choose where to apply our minds, our energies, our sweat and tears. I'm glad know there are mitigation hawks and adaptation hawks each pushing as hard as possible, because we need it all.