Blog Post

Climate Change Policy Imperatives: Let's Not Neglect Adaptation

Sep 26, 2014 | Joel Darmstadter

Each succeeding year in which the world fails to agree to forceful and binding commitments to slash releases of greenhouse gas emissions underscores the increased urgency of complementary measures to strengthen resilience to impacts of global warming that may no longer be avoided or sufficiently mitigated through just emissions reduction. Framing that dilemma in shorthand confronts us with the combined imperative of mitigation and adaptation.

To be sure, that duality has never eluded serious efforts to deal with climate change—whether in academic or policy circles. Anyone who has a copy of a 1989 RFF Press publication on a bookshelf will note on its spine the title, Greenhouse Warming: Abatement and Adaptation. And the 1992 RFF Press book, Global Development and the Environment: Perspectives on Sustainability, contains a chapter that, for its time, is an unusually strong argument for the concurrent pursuit of both emissions mitigation and adaptation—the latter, with particular emphasis on drought and water resource management.

Looking back at the inertia that, up to this week’s UN conference, has pervaded energy and climate policy and ahead to the major Paris negotiations in late 2015, it seems clear that the paired essentials of mitigation and adaptation demand a seat at the table. I give a more extensive review of these issues, and how they fit into broader global-warming policy imperatives and options, in a recent article, From Rio to Kyoto to Paris:  Hopes and Realities for Global Warming Policy, published by USAEE Dialogue.

Indeed, the urgency of addressing the adaptation element in overall global climate change policy can be gauged from, among other indications, the third US National Climate Assessment, released earlier this year. That study is almost solely concerned with sectors of the US economy—agriculture, water resources, coastal infrastructure, forests, ecosystems, human health, and more—threatened by impacts of climate change. These impacts, while in large part the consequences of global greenhouse gas emissions and their rising atmospheric concentrations, may no longer be avoidable even if aggressive mitigation strategies—however badly needed in their own right—commenced tomorrow.

The issue of preparedness applies with particular salience to numerous low-income developing countries. Think about what sea-level rise portends for Bangladesh and South Pacific island chains. The take-away policy message from these comments: confront relentlessly the urgency of emissions mitigation. But don’t relegate the importance of adaptation to the role of an afterthought.