The Truth about Adaptation

David Roberts, formerly of Grist.org, did not lose his chops when he moved to Vox.

A recent essay, entitled Hurricane Katrina showed what “adapting to climate change” looks like is proof of this, and given that we’re still on track for a full-fledged climate catastrophe, it’s required reading.  And be clear about the context here — this is not a brief against adaptation, which will be essential — but an argument against those who pretend to seriousness by presenting adaptation as an alternative to a full-bore mitigation mobilization.

Here are some of Robert’s key points:

* Adaptation will be extremely expensivemuch more expensive than reducing carbon emissions up front — and just as politically difficult.

* Mitigation is altruistic and universalist; adaptation is tribal and local.  In other words, Adaptation “is not global but local, not universal in impact but highly targeted. A billion dollars of mitigation helps everyone a little bit; a billion dollars of adaptation helps a few people a lot. Specifically, adaptation helps people who have the luck to live in areas that can afford it.”

* Mitigation slows the spread of inequality; adaptation speeds it up.  This one I will quote at length:

“Among its other ill effects, climate change threatens to exacerbate global inequality; it will hit first and hardest in countries that are already poor,setting back decades of development efforts aimed at raising them to a decent standard of living.

Mitigation helps prevent that acceleration of inequality. Adaptation does not. Adaptation, in fact, is likely to further exacerbate it.

One’s ability to adapt is tied directly to one’s wealth. Rich countries will be able to do more of it than poor countries; within rich countries, wealthier cities will be able to do more of it than poorer cities and rural areas; and even within wealthy cities, it will be the more affluent residents who have access to the most adaptation and the poor who have access to the least.

It’s not just that money can buy more sea walls, drought-tolerant agriculture equipment, private water supplies, and other material aids to adaptation. It’s that money also tends to come along with social capital, and one of the most important findings in research on resilience is that social cohesion is just as important as technology. It is the places with strong social networks that tend to have plans, civic institutions, early warning systems, and systems of aid and support that help communities through crisis.

It is socially cohesive communities, in which people are “in it together,” that survive disaster and rebuild afterward. Places without those social networks fragment; their suffering becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

Unfortunately, economic inequality also tends to reduce social cohesion, leading to lack of trust and fewer shared resources. So if the people who support adaptation were being honest, they would acknowledge that perhaps the first and most effective form of adaptation is to reduce economic inequality, to create more cohesive communities defined by fellow-feeling rather than mutual suspicion and resentment. That’s true on the local level and also on the national and international level, as resource transfers between and within countries will need to rise markedly to prepare the most vulnerable places for what’s to come.

Spoiler alert: That won’t happen. The people most likely to be pushing the never-mind-mitigation-we’ll-adapt line also tend to be the people most hostile to attempts to reduce inequality.”