Against Adaptation?

Since we first started thinking seriously about climate change the debate has tended to polarise between ‘mitigationists’ who thought prevention was better than cure, and ‘adaptationists’, who thought the opposite.

It has become an article of faith that neither side is entirely right; that we need to split our climate budgets into mitigation and adaptation pots, the former to slow things down, the latter to help us cope with climate change that is already inevitable. This sounds reasonable and humane and I applaud the sentiment behind it. Nevertheless I wish to argue against it.

Most climate scientists believe we should strive to avoid increasing the risk of crossing thresholds which could trigger large changes. Currently the working threshold is 2°C. Giving ourselves a reasonable chance of avoiding this threshold requires an all-out effort starting more or less immediately, and if this is the case, we should not (yet) divert resources to adaptation, for this reason: that the consequences of failure are very very grave.  

A medical analogy suggests itself. Suppose a person is injured in a traffic accident, bleeding profusely and in severe pain. A well-equipped paramedic arrives on the scene. Should she administer morphine for pain relief or act to stop the bleeding? It is fairly obvious that it should be bleeding first, pain after. If the injured person had died on account of wrongly prioritised treatment, relatives would have justifiably distressed.  The climate issue is similar: if we fail to prevent irreversible change, posterity will suffer from our mistaken priorities. There is a lot of posterity to come, and a great deal of potential suffering.

That is the basic ethical argument. In practical terms, good choices are made difficult by the asymmetry of mitigation and adaptation in terms of costs and benefits. Any action taken by an individual, city or nation to mitigate climate change has a minuscule beneficial effect and an appreciable personal cost. It only works in aggregate if everybody else does it too.   In total contrast, action for adaptation has a tangible benefit, now or in the near future. “Why not let others make the sacrifices? My (or my country’s) resources are better spent making sure we are OK whatever the outcome of mitigation efforts.”

One can see that there is likely to be increasing temptation to divert resources away from mitigation (which helps everybody) towards adaptation (which helps Me). Already, much ‘climate discussion’ (for example in agriculture) is simply assumed to be about adaptation, and the more we allow it as a significant item of discussion, the more resources in money, time, imagination, technology will be siphoned off, legitimised by the sentiment that ‘well, we have to do both’. Self-interest will ensure that mitigation is relegated to a distant second place. Then we really are stuffed.


So I say, No Adaptation until it is clear we have ‘stopped the bleeding’. Argue with that.