08 November 2012

Mitigation vs Adaptation: What's The Difference?

We hear a lot about climate change "mitigation" these days . . . or is it "adaptation"? What's the difference and why should we care? The video says it in a nutshell:

"Mitigation" means making something less severe. Like reducing carbon emissions to reduce the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and thus slow global warming. "Adaptation" means dealing with a problem once it exists, like moving north to avoid heat waves, or installing more air conditioning, or attempting geoengineering projects to roll back climate change.

Mitigation--doing something now to slow global warming and make its impact on future generations less harmful--seems to be very difficult. We haven't been able to achieve much, even with the Kyoto Agreement and lots of handwringing among liberal Western consumers. In spite of Kyoto and a global economic recession CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing faster today than they were back in 1990, the Kyoto base year. And there seems to be little prospect of a more effective global political agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or even to extend the Kyoto program in modified form.

The reasons are easy to see. People don't want to sacrifice if they aren't going to benefit.
  • The real beneficiaries of emission reduction are future generations. Future generations don't vote (yet). 
  • Greenhouse gases emitted anywhere have impacts everywhere: Unless almost everybody sacrifices, nobody benefits. 
  • There is a "freeloader" problem. Many consumers may sacrifice (change consumption patterns or pay extra costs) to reduce emissions, which will have world-wide benefits if enough participate. But those benefits will also accrue to those who chose not to make those sacrifices.
The result is that we are doing practically nothing and we are on a path to global temperature rises of 4, 6, or more degrees celsius. (We've seen less than 1°C so far.)

So what will happen if we continue on this path? Global warming, climate change, and sea level rise. Some have characterized the potential impacts as "hell on Earth". 

Feasibility Cost
Mitigation Politically very difficult; needs worldwide cooperation; present costs benefit future generations; externalities Significant costs: Maybe 1%-2% of GDP
Adaptation Politically easier: Local investments to address local threats; immediate benefits High costs: Maybe 3%-5% of GDP or more

More on the future we are heading toward at sister blog A Very Different Earth.

The course mentioned in the video is described in more detail here.

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