Friday, December 11, 2009

Mitigation and adaptation

One of the many differences being featured in the negotiations is the amount of emphasis different parties are placing on the concepts of mitigation verses adaptation. Mark and I have had a number of conversations about the importance the talks should be placing on one or the other. Mitigation is what most of the press is talking about when they cover Copenhagen and the work of the UNFCCC in general. It involves stopping and ultimately reversing the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Whether you are talking about cap and trade, carbon taxes, carbon capture and sequestration or stopping deforestation, they are all different strategies working towards the same goal. Ultimately, this is the key to solving the problem. The real problem is that so far, we haven't even been able to slow down the rate at which gasses are being emitted let alone reverse the trend.

The relevance of this distinction is perhaps best encapsulated in a quote from a book I read before coming to Copenhagen, Kjellen (2006) writes: "In a world with so many other problems, it will take time for emission reductions to have a real impact, though this ultimately needs to happen. Therefore, adaptation will be a major component of the climate change regime. So far, more attention has been paid to mitigation than to adaptation."

So if our ability to rein in greenhouse gas emissions is going to take a while, then what do we do about the effects of climatic change that we are already seeing and expect to get worse. Adaptation won't solve the problem of climate change, it will simply alleviate the symptoms. It's like taking Tylenol when you have a headache. At some point, alleviation of symptoms is good medicine.

I wrote earlier about vulnerability and the notion that certain populations (and ecosystems, and environments) are going to pay a much higher cost than others. The ways in which climate changes are impacting different places is highly variable. This sets up a situation where existing inequities are highlighted. The UN is a place where amazingly wealthy nations sit side by side with the very poor. Inequities are important here and highly visible.

So at the same time that there is a wide gap between the big emitters of greenhouse gasses and countries that produce less than their fair share, there is a wide gap between the countries that are expected to shoulder the burden of climate impacts and those that are less vulnerable. As luck would have it, many of the poor countries who have contributed less to the problem of global warming are going to be impacted more. The very existence of small island countries like the Maldives will be threatened as sea levels change. (Even discounting the addition of glacial meltwater, as seawater gets hotter it will expand on its own, leading to higher sea levels.) Kenya and other semi-arid countries will be more susceptible to drought and water stress. So how much do we (or should we) concentrate on alleviating the symptoms of the disease verses curing the cause?

One interesting aspect of this distinction between mitigation and adaptation is that climate skeptics who remain unconvinced (or unconvincable) about the human causes of warming trends witnessed over the period of historic record, should really have no problem with the concept of adaptation. If, for whatever reason they would like to believe, observed temperature trends are causing ancillary problems such as drought, desertification, floods, and human migration, then these should be addressed regardless of the ultimate cause.

If you were walking down the street and saw someone who had just been stabbed lying there bleeding to death would it be ethical to walk on by and excuse it by telling yourself you're not responsible because it wasn't you that stabbed them? At some point broader discussions about climate change become complicated. This is not because the physical and chemical mechanics of atmospheric composition and behavior are difficult to predict but because the formulation of the problem itself shifts constantly. Is climate change a mechanical environmental question, a political question, or an ethical question? The answer so clearly illustrated here in Copenhagen is that it is inevitably all of them. This is why we need Geographers and researchers who can integrate research across boundaries.

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