During an impromptu conversation over coffee at the August 2014 California Adaptation Forum in Sacramento, a non-technical activist who runs a local climate advocacy group asked me earnestly “Do climate adaptation and climate mitigation always work together?” I already knew that the answer was “No,” but since August, I’ve been mulling over how to answer that question in a more satisfying, more theoretical way.
It would be nice if adaptation and mitigation were always in synergy. (Heck, it would be nice if the words were at least used consistently and the American public understood what they mean. The best explanation I heard recently was a quote from biologist Caitlin Cornwall at the CA Adaptation Forum: “Mitigation is driving a Prius. Adaptation is driving a Prius to higher ground.”)
I often hear, either explicitly or implicitly, that climate mitigation and climate adaptation actions are usually synergistic. But why should this be true? Isn’t the opposite just as likely to be true? A Prius isn’t any better at escaping storm surge than a Chevy pickup is – and, in fact, it may well be worse.
I also hear: “There’s no point trying to adapt to climate change if we’re not also mitigating climate change. Only adaptation projects with mitigation co-benefits should be pursued.” But again, why should this be true? The benefits of an adaptation project are local and profound: that new sea wall will save you, your kids, your Prius, and your entire neighborhood. The benefits of a mitigation project are diluted across the entire globe and are infinitesimal in your own neighborhood. You could paint your new sea wall white so that it reflects more sunlight and cools the earth by 0.000000001 degrees, but wouldn’t it make just as much sense to paint the roof of an existing building? Why should adaptation and mitigation projects be conceptually handcuffed together?
To be sure, there are lots of examples of encouraging adaptation-mitigation synergies. One well-known synergy in my own field of expertise is increasing soil carbon in agricultural lands. Not only does the carbon get conveniently sucked out of the atmosphere, but when it is in the soil, it can increase soil water-holding capacity and improve soil structure, helping soils resist the effects of drought, high temperatures, and other insults.
But for every example of a synergy, I can find an example of a dissonance. For example, planting monoculture eucalyptus or pine plantations in the tropics is a great way to sequester lots of carbon quickly. But it’s bad for biodiversity, smallholder livelihoods, cultural heritage, wildfire hazard, and a lot of other metrics that are stressed by climate change.
What I’m really struggling with is whether there is any conceptual underpinning to all these seemingly random examples of positive, antagonistic, or neutral interactions between climate mitigation and climate adaptation projects. I feel as though there must be an underlying theory can that predict in what cases synergies are likely to arise.
My vague, unscientific idea is that when the adaptation project represents a return to a more natural state (e.g., no-till agriculture), it is also likely to return the atmosphere to a more natural state (e.g., less CO2). When the adaptation project represents a high-tech intervention to compensate for the danger we’ve put ourselves in (e.g., installing more air conditioners to protect against heat waves), it is likely to result in additional greenhouse gas emissions.
Although I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, I am concerned by blithe and perhaps baseless optimism that climate mitigation and adaptation projects will usually be synergistic. We’ve gotten ourselves and our planet in big trouble, and we’re going to have to make some hard choices in the years ahead. I fear we won’t always be able to have our cake and eat it too.
I’d like to figure out a way to make this theory concrete enough to test it. Please let me know if you have any ideas!
PS. For more background on this issue, here’s an good article that appeared in Grist a few months ago: http://grist.org/climate-energy/preventing-climate-change-and-adapting-to-it-are-not-morally-equivalent/