Mitigate and Adapt - the squabbling twins that will only grow louder


It was only a few years ago that scientists shifted their language about global warming.   Saying that it is too late to fix or solve global warming, that henceforth all we can do is mitigate future warming and adapt to the situation.   Adaptation and mitigation will soon be seen as squabbling twins, like oil and water - neither really gets along with the other - but both are needed for our future.


We can face our fate of human-induced climate change in only two directions - toward adaptation (the present) and toward mitigation (the future).  These act as agents to ourselves and our posterity; the present and the future. We will learn a new daily sustainability, but if we want future survivability then we must eradicate carbon.   We will have to reverse our greatest contribution to the problem - CO2 emissions.  Despite calls for cooperation between both approaches - the schism between them widens as resources dwindle.

Adaptation: process whereby an organism becomes better suited to its habitat.

Humans will be adapting to a warming and changing climate through new agricultural practices, making sea walls, moving populations from lowlands and drought areas, and generally trying to make ourselves comfortable as we face the increasing stresses of warming.   For over 8 billion people, adaptation will mean spending tremendous energy in order to reach relative safety, get fresh water, maintain health and agriculture.  The comfort of the past will be impossible to reclaim.  But there is a valid role for business and industry in the ongoing task of adapting to climate destabilization.

Mitigation : to lessen in force or intensity, as wrath, grief, harshness, or pain; to moderate.

There is no chance we can return to the Garden of Eden.  But mitigation - doing all we can to minimize the problem and not make it worse - is scientifically possible.  It must include a radical reduction in greenhouse gases derived from carbon fuels like oil and coal.   The mitigation requirement that we remove carbon from the atmosphere is anathema to coal, gas and oil energy companies who’s businesses all have a carbon waste-product.   Avoiding a harsh future of warming requires painful sacrifices and systemic changes that we must make today.

Curtailing carbon based energy is so contrary to oil and coal interests that they will do anything, join any movement, just to secure a place in a globally warmed future.  Indeed, stockholders demand revenue for this quarter and for all future fiscal years - no matter what the climate.   So these carbon fuel industries, automotive industries, and other watermelon-green campaigns (green on the outside only) become hearty supporters of adaptation as a way for their industry to counter any call to end carbon emissions..   Why not?

Today climate change denialists begrudgingly accept global warming as fact, and even join the adaptation campaign - yet will stridently refuse to accept that man-made CO2 worsens warming.   This works to define adaptationists as an exclusionary group that refuses to co-operate with mitigation by curtailing CO2.   To help cement this notion, Exxon alone spent over $400 million in the last decade fighting the public perception of global warming.   All the major oil, gas and coal energy companies fund a strong information consortium: the American Petroleum Institute.  Theirs, along with other media blitzkrieg campaigns have rained relentless salvos of advertisements, political campaigns and funding professional skeptics, denialist and consultants.  They can boast victory in their battle for their business future, public resources and a political power base.  Their support of adaptation and consistent funding of television and newspaper ads makes news organizations financially gun-shy about challenging the wisdom of carbon sourced energy.  Watch for their ads on ‘Meet the Press’.

The economic horror is that Adapters will be annoyed and discomforted by Mitigators, and mitigation can only happen by sacrifice of adaptation interests.

Growing polarization will see each side fanatically championing its cause: adaptationists will align against the funding of mitigation - thus keeping finite resources on the adaptation side.   Oil companies, anti-government politicos will join emerging Third World industrial nations to deny co-operation with the mitigation cause - despite the predicted hardship scenarios for their baseline survival.

The mitigation cause has only science on its side - the economic interests are not part of any company or bank.  Without the challenge, we can expect stronger promotion of adaptation strategies devoid of any suggestion of constraining carbon fuel.   It will be business as usual.  So we see industry-funded sites like - which may appear positive and helpful - but which act to polarize opinion by offering everything but the one best solution - cutting CO2.   This makes the situation worse, makes contentious and divisive conflict inevitable.

For right now, without a compelling climate catastrophe, the mitigationists must rely on intangible models, predictions and scenarios.  Without a current, widespread, palpable crisis, the case for mitigation is more like a dystopian sci-fi docu-drama.   Further, as humans lose the comfort of cheap carbon, we will find it increasingly harder to pull resources away from forces of reactionary adaptation.

Our vital struggle must link efforts of both adaptation and mitigation as crucial to a future civilization.   It is the essential role of government to calm this conflict and to join and co-ordinate human endeavor.   Too soon, the inexorable increasing pain will shift the sides and equalize the conflict.

Although few climate scenarios go beyond the year 2100, the political roots of distant struggles are being set down now.   Our struggle will eventually be unified.  Today we decide whether it will be a radically reduced population that prevails.

Richard Pauli

  June 2009

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I don't know whether this is a totally original framing of the problem but it is new to me, and fascinating. As more people come to understand this construct, it wouldn't surprise me to see an earlier prediction of yours come about - a widespread repudiation of the older generation by the young. They are the ones who will be most concerned about consequences decades in the future - or should be!

I believe this is a false and highly misleading argument.

A carbon constrained society is almost "by definition" more resilient against climate change impacts.


Community gardens obviate the need to ship in food from long distances, reduce fossil fuel use, and provide another source of food that is available should the food supply become compromised.

Biking and walking also reduce GHG emissions, but they also create resiliency by making people healthier (and thus more resistant to diseases for which climate change can act as a threat-multiplier), and it tends to bring communities together as people "meet and greet on the street" thereby exchanging information, and forming stronger community bonds that can be drawn upon to find additional solutions to the climate threat

Distributed energy, such as solar rooftops, small wind, and some biomass systems produce energy where it is needed, cutting down on transmission and therefore boosting the efficiency of the distribution system. And, should the grid "go down," such as after a storm, people will have a ready supply of energy -- an effective adaptation strategy for unreliable power.

There are many many more examples.

The rhetoric on this is corporate-driven, politically-motivated, greed-oriented, and wrong.

We need more people citing more examples, and actually putting them into place to demonstrate the power of this message. It's all one thing, not two. And it's the right path to take.

Of course we need a unified adaptation and mitigation effort. I just tried to define the emerging sides in climate politics to come - it was not to exhort us to take one side or the other. Local and state politics will be primarily adaptive. Global politics will be the main force driving mitigation. There is plenty of overlap; this was meant to be a general observation.

I hope my rhetoric was not "corporate-driven, politically-motivated, greed-oriented" - but certainly that is how most of the power is wielded today - and where persuasion should be targeted. To ignore that, or expect the whole world to grow up and willingly act smart might be a bit naive - don't you think?

After the world sees what is right, what is best, and what each should do - why does it follow that actual change will then happen? Humans are not that rational. Since we still need a continuing showcase of successful change and the demonstration of the right path, I am grateful for all the hard work that you do. -RP

See also the excellent article in Yale360

- snip -
Adaptation Emerges As Key Part Of Any Climate Change Plan
After years of reluctance, scientists and governments are now looking to adaptation measures as critical for confronting the consequences of climate change. And increasingly, plans are being developed to deal with rising seas, water shortages, spreading diseases, and other realities of a warming world.
by bruce stutz

Adaptation. For many in the climate change community, the word has had a traitorous ring, implying that its proponents were giving up on the notion that the world might mitigate the threat of global warming by significantly reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Adaptation was for quitters.

Not anymore.

With nations in the industrialized and developing worlds continuing to pump record levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, hopes are fading that over the next half-century...


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