The United Nations' latest report on climate change contains plenty of dire warnings about the adverse impact "human interference with the climate system" is having on everything from sea levels to crop yields to violent conflicts. But the primary message of the study isn't, as John Kerry suggested on Sunday, for countries to collectively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Instead, the subtext appears to be this: Climate change is happening and will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. As a result, we need to adapt to a warming planet—to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits associated with increasing temperatures—rather than focusing solely on curbing warming in the first place. And it's businesses and local governments, rather than the international community, that can lead the way.
“The really big breakthrough in this report is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change,” Chris Field, the co-chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study, said this week, adding that governments, companies, and communities are already experimenting with “climate-change adaptation.”
First, a definition of terms is in order. Since the 1990s, the climate-policy community has been engaged in a debate about whether to focus on reducing emissions ("mitigation"), managing climate change ("adaptation"), or both. But in a 2007 article for Nature, a team of academics gave three reasons for why the "taboo on adaptation" was gradually disappearing:
1. The "timescale mismatch": Even if world leaders take decisive action to cut emissions (a big "if"), it won't have an impact on the climate for decades, and greenhouse-gas concentrations will continue to increase in the meantime.
2. The emissions fallacy: People are vulnerable to the climate for reasons other than greenhouse-gas emissions, including factors like socioeconomic inequality and rapid population growth along coasts.
3. The demands of developing countries: While wealthy countries account for most greenhouse-gas emissions, poor countries suffer the most damage from climate change. And these developing countries want the international community to help them become less vulnerable to the extreme climactic events they're facing now, rather than arguing over emission targets that will theoretically protect them in the future.
The IPCC's early climate reports in the 1990s barely mentioned climate-change adaptation. But that changed in the panel's 2001 edition, which noted that "adaptation is a necessary strategy at all scales to complement climate mitigation efforts." The IPCC spent two pages discussing "adaptation options" in its 2007 study, and this week has devoted more than four chapters to the strategy, including a graph that shows our ability to adapt to climate change in three eras: the present; the near-future we've committed ourselves to based on current emissions; and the distant future we still have the capacity to shape.
Adaptation hasn't received nearly as much attention on the international level as mitigation has, though that could change with this latest UN report. But on the national level, where much of the action on climate change has shifted amid international gridlock, adaptation-focused thinking is becoming more common. According to a recent study by Globe International, which tracked climate legislation across 66 countries, the number of national climate laws around the world has increased from 40 in 1997 to nearly 500 now. Some of these laws are mitigation-focused, like Switzerland's aggressive carbon-dioxide-reduction act, but overall the "momentum in climate change legislation [is] shifting from industrialised countries to developing countries and emerging markets," which "has gone hand in hand with a rise in legislation covering adaptation."
In Africa, key risks revolve around insect-transmitted illnesses, clean-water availability, and agricultural productivity due to intensifying droughts. Terms such as "sustainable urban development," "agroforestry," and "diversifying livelihoods" pop up in the corresponding list of adaptation prospects. Central and South America face all of the above, too, though adaptation responses may focus more on equipping public-health services to fight the spread of vector-borne diseases.