Adaptation and Mitigation – an explanation

A lot of people seem to get confused by ‘adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’. I thought I’d just make the differences and the need for both clear.

First of all, what are they?

Adaptation is the process of changing how we live, work or do things in order to reduce the risks and challenges we face from climate change, to change ourselves to live in a different set of climatic circumstances. Adaptation could be remembering to put sunglasses and a hat on in hot sunny weather, or putting on waterproofs when it rains. It could also be designing floating houses, as the Dutch have done, to cope with rising sea levels.

Mitigation is the process of changing what we do and how we live in the hope that we can prevent climate change happening, or reduce it if we can’t stop it. Mitigation involves trying to reduce our emissions so we don’t have so high a concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or taking steps to reduce soot emissions.

Is we can adapt, why do we need to mitigate?

The answer to this one is quite simple. If we don’t mitigate climate change by taking some very drastic action in the very near future (such as reducing our emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2020) then we will face changes too great to adapt to. Imagine, for example, that global average temperature rises by 4 degres celsius. According to most calculations, 4 degrees of temperature rise would see dramatic changes in the Earth’s surface – sea level rise over a metre, the loss of permafrost, wildfires as far north as the Alps, summer rains failing 70% of the time in the Mediterranean, Australia, India, North, Central and South American deserts expanding, summers in the UK reaching 45 degrees Celsius, droughts commonplace across Northern Europe. Can we really ‘adapt’ to a world like that? Where do all the people from the affected countries move to? How do we feed them? Where do we find enough drinking water for that many displaced people?  So, we need to mitigate climate change as much as possible.

But if we can mitigate climate change, why bother adapting?

“Some degree of climate change is inevitable because of past and present carbon emissions. Even with strong international action to curb emissions, global temperatures still have a fifty percent chance of rising above 2 °C by the end of the century.” (from the Committee on Climate Change’s website). In other words, no matter what we do now, there is some change ‘locked in’ to the Earth’s future that can’t be prevented. We must adapt to that, and the less mitigation we do, the more adaptation will be needed.

Adapting to likely changes ahead of time is cheaper and easier than trying to play catch-up after the fact, so the time to consider adaptation strategies is now. LIkewise, the more we can mitigate the future climate change, the less adaptation we will need to do – and the sooner we take steps to mitigate, the easier it will be to achieve.


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