Mitigation vs. Adaptation

29 Apr

MIT’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory, an offshoot of the MIT Alliance for Global Sustainability, is making remarkable strides forward in the quest for efficiency and cleanliness of auto engines. Its parent program is researching initiatives from auto CO2 reductions to emissions mitigation in East Asian megacities. Worldwide, governments, research institutes and schools are forging ahead on technologies that reduce our greenhouse gases-and, it’s hoped, moderate the harm of climate change.

climate-change_cars_submergedBut how realistic is this approach? Hundreds of nonprofits and governments worldwide have staked their approach on a technology-driven solution that mitigates climate change by removing its causes from the atmosphere. If it were revealed that in the best case scenario these efforts will not be enough, where does it leave us?

In February 2007 Nature published a groundbreaking essay by a group of climate change experts that shed light on this question. In “Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation” (at right) they advanced the claim that mitigation of climate change won’t be enough-we need to start adapting to our already-changing climate. The authors note that countries like the Philippines are already adapting; they have built predicted sea-level rise into their policies already.

The Nature article stirred up considerable debate. Climate change scientists and policymakers have long held that mitigation is essential-through reductions in emissions, greater efficiency and new, clean technologies we can reverse the growing atmospheric CO2 concentrations and escape the worst predictions. Increasingly scholarly institutes and governments alike are recognizing that adaption must play a role in our strategy. The extent and nature of that role are anything but clear, though.

Tool for mitigation, or adaptation? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle.

Tool for mitigation, or adaptation? The answer may lie somewhere in the middle.

The stakeholders in this debate do not align cleanly or along any established political or academic rift. Some are conservatives like U.S. Representative Sensenbrenner, heavily favor a technology-driven mitigation strategy. Conservatives who have fought climate change recognition in the past are now more frequently arguing against adaptation efforts, which they claim will impair our standard of living. Governments, especially in poorer nations, are growingly viewing adaptation as the best strategy, as efforts to adapt are frequently lower cost and easier to implement than high-tech mitigation strategies. As with all aspects of this problem, little international unity has emerged.

What balance should we strike between mitigation and adaptation? Must they be dually implemented, or should one be favored over the other?

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