Climate Change Vocabulary: Adaptation Versus Mitigation

Just like any profession, climate science and policy each have specific languages that can be confusing to outsiders. I touched on this a little in a series on communicating climate change. But given that some of these terms repeatedly appear in the media (and in this editorial section for that matter), I think its worth exploring them in more detail in the interest of furthering the debate on how to cope with climate change.

Some of the terms might seem intuitive (a refresher never hurts, does it?), others not so much. If there are any terms you find especially confusing, please let me know, and I can include them in future posts.

The first two terms I’d like to highlight are adaptation and mitigation. They’re both central features to climate policy, but they each offer different benefits at different levels.

Adaptation is any tool or project that helps communities better adjust to climate variability. Sea walls, drought-resistant crops, and flood early warning systems are all examples of adaptations that help deal with climate variability. These tools or projects provide direct and immediate benefits to a local community. Given that climate change will likely cause greater variations in future climate, adapting to current climate also benefits future generations.

Mitigation mechanisms provide benefits for future generations by mitigating climate change. Examples of mitigation efforts include wind farms, reforestation projects, and harvesting methane from landfills. Each of these examples provides indirect benefits to local populations including better air quality and cleaner water.

However, the direct benefits of mitigation will not be felt for generations to come. Carbon dioxide spends 2-200 years (depending on how you calculate) in the atmosphere before it is broken down. Other greenhouse gases have even longer atmospheric lifetimes. For example nitrous oxide, a byproduct from agriculture, has an atmospheric lifetime of 120 years while certain halocarbons which come from!!!!, have an atmospheric lifetime of 65-400 years. Thus, whatever efforts we make to mitigate climate change and stabilize global climate will not be felt until long after we’re gone.

This is not to say that mitigation is not important. The importance of how much effort you’re willing to put into mitigating climate change depends on what your discount rate is. Economists will be familiar with this term.  A later installment in this series will explain discount rates in more detail. The quick and dirty explanation, though, is how much you value something in the future versus today. In the case of mitigating climate change, the thing we’re putting value on is future generations well being.

Both mitigation and adaptation are important ways of dealing with climate change. Until recently, international climate policy didn’t address adaptation in part because of a hope that we could mitigate climate change and in part because the possible effects were too far down the road. Mitigation was the main goal of a facet of the Kyoto Protocol. There were two programs laid out in the Protocol to deal with mitigation: the Clean Development Mechanism, which is geared towards developing countries, and Joint Implementation, which is geared towards developed countries. While these programs still exist, adaptation has also started to receive more attention at international negotiations. This is in part because adaptation has so many benefits in the present, especially for people in developing countries who work in climate-dependent trades. At Copenhagen, the US pledged to start a $100 billion fund to help with adaptation in developing countries.

In the end, both adaptation and mitigation mechanisms are necessary for dealing with climate change. The present and direct benefits of adaptation will help insulate local communities from climate variability now and in the future. The indirect and future benefits of mitigation will help stabilize the future climate for generations to come.

Photo Credit: Wind Farm, Crops