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?