Is acceptance of climate change adaptation an admission that mitigation has failed?

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 March 2013 15:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

By Lisa Anderson

The question of whether accepting and acting on climate change adaptation amounts to an admission of defeat for climate change mitigation was the most pressing topic discussed by climate experts on a panel this week at an event sponsored by The Earth Institute.

The debate around applying climate change science to urban environments has been reinvigorated in the wake of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy on New York City and its 500 miles of coastline in October 2012, as well as on the coastlines of neighbouring New Jersey and Long Island.

The work to mitigate the factors that contribute to climate change is not over, said Lisa Goddard, director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and a professor at New York's Columbia University, which hosted the panel event.

“But, at the same time, the climate is changing,” said Goddard. “We need to adapt to climate change.  Period. Just because we have a growing population and growing infrastructure, adaptation is not a debatable topic. It’s not an either/or.”

“Just because you’re adapting to climate change doesn’t mean you’ve given up on mitigation,” she added.

Panelist Adam Sobel, a professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, agreed. Even if we reduced carbon dioxide emissions dramatically some of the damage has already been done and must be dealt with, he said.

“Even under the most optimistic scenarios, we’re going to see some warming and it’s unrealistic not to recognise it,” he said, speaking of adaptation strategies.

Meanwhile, Sergej Mahnovski, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said adaptation and mitigation go hand in hand: “I think the answer is you have to do both.”

To that end, he said, New York City in the wake of Sandy has tasked the New York City Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation to examine exactly what happened to the city during the hurricane, what might happen if a similar weather event occurs and what are the most cost-effective measures to deal with severe weather going forward.

Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City. It left most of Lower Manhattan and parts of Queens and Staten Island nearly submerged and without electricity for weeks—a situation that persists in some of the most low-lying areas where many businesses, homes and buildings were heavily damaged by flooding and winds and have not reopened.

New measures and plans need to be considered before the next severe weather event, which experts believe is likely.

Sobel noted that “climate change science and disaster risk management must begin to work together more.”  While science has made much progress in predicting heat waves, droughts and floods, we have a long way to go to produce relibale advance warning systems for hurricanes and tornadoes, he said. 

In a heavily populated area, however, “the risk of disaster doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon our communities,” said Steven Cohen, a professor and executive director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, who moderated the panel.

The problem, he pointed out, is that despite the severity of Sandy and other hurricanes, when one considers all the other extreme weather events around the United States — drought in the Midwest, wild-fires in the West, a proliferation of tornadoes and hurricanes elsewhere and a rising number of heat waves and blizzards — “there really is no place to hide.”

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