President's Perspective

Adaptation: Peril or Promise?


I am a bit troubled by the growing interest in climate change adaptation and resiliency. Are you? To me, it signals that we have given up on climate change mitigation. The subliminal message is that it is too hard and too late to stop global warming. That, in fact, the best we can do is “ drop, duck and cover” (that’s California earthquake speak!). This sentiment may be bit exaggerated, but it does force a reality check for us climate change warriors. Clearly, the scale of the problem does not equal the extant resource commitments. Change is underway, but we are not just fighting climate change, we are up against an organized lobby of climate change deniers, legacy industries fighting viciously for its last gasp, a still nascent and vastly underdeveloped alternative energy sector, Joe/Jane public who believe in climate change but only nominally contribute – for a variety of reasons -- to the solution, and a national policy environment that is paralyzed by the politics of it all. So, in the face of these ground battles, I worry that the shift to issues of adaptation and resilience will pull already limited attention, resources, people and time away from prevention. The inevitability of climate change and adaptation then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But, there is more to my mental madness. In reality, I do feel that it is a smart move to figure out how to manage the impacts to life, lifestyle and habitat that climate change brings. As NY Governor Cuomo reminded us after Hurricane Sandy, we are experiencing the 100-year flood every 2 years. What concerns me, however, are the Equity Dimensions of Adaptation. The language and science of Adaptation grows out of Darwin’s study of natural selection and accentuates a “survival of the fittest’ ethos, which many Americans already embrace as our cultural norm. Now that is scary stuff. Once again this may be hyperbole, but it should also give Adaptation advocates pause. The reality here is that too many communities already go without adequate food, water, shelter, health care and other basic needs. Adaptation strategies must address a century of underinvestment in the physical infrastructure and the civic capacity found in resilient communities. Are we prepared to make the kind of investments needed to build a resilient society? Are we prepared to channel the political and moral authority and the economic resources needed to protect America’s most vulnerable? These are some of the questions that some of us will be exploring at the Inaugural National Adaptation Forum in Denver in April.

No matter what path we chose -- mitigation or adaptation -- the lift is heavy. It requires the political, moral, economic and social capacity that is yet evident to address the many dimensions of climate change. This is particularly challenging since we don’t have the luxury to choose one over another; we need to do both!! My hope is that this national “shift” to an Adaptation frame includes “mitigation or prevention” as the centerpiece to Adaptation. And most importantly, that perhaps America will fully confront climate change justice issues to ensure that all populations and communities, especially the most economically vulnerable, have the resources and capacities to be resilient now and in a climate disaster. Now that is a hopeful and promising thought!