Climate change – Adaptation vs. mitigation
By Eliot Daley
Hey, I’m all in favor of helping fellow human beings in distress, but
But? There’s a “but”?
Yep. Here’s the thing. When I was studying theology in a seminary many years ago, one professor reflected on the well-known biblical story of the good Samaritan. In it, a Samaritan traveler comes upon a man lying beaten and robbed on the roadside. He promptly gives aid, transports the man to town and arranges food and lodging for him, and tells the innkeeper that he will foot the bill.
What a good guy, we all think. And we’re right, up to a point, said my professor. But he then asked, “Suppose the Samaritan encounters another victim the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next. At what point does his patching up their wounds become a far less praiseworthy use of his time, energy and money than doing something about public safety on that roadway?”
His question pestered me when I read of the latest $100 million allocation of your money and mine to help New Jersey shore residents lift their homes onto stilts, the better to withstand the next onslaught from a Mother Nature whose temper seems a little hot these days.
This $100 million gesture may feel good to some, but it’s easy to overlook what it represents: namely, adaptation.
So, what’s wrong with adaptation? Like the Samaritan’s initial gesture, nothing. It’s only when we set adaptation next to the alternative — mitigation — that it triggers a question about the wisest, most humane course of action.
The issue of adaptation vs. mitigation is not widely or well understood. Put simply, we have a choice regarding the expenditure of any given dollar to be spent in the general arena of climate change: Spend it to adapt to a changing climate or spend it to diminish the change in the climate.
While it is inevitable at this point that we must invest in both, the proportion of allocation to each strategy is critical. When we choose to invest in adaptation, we admit that climate change is happening, is damaging, is unstoppable and we’re going to do the best we can to limit the inevitable destruction of human lives, property, economies and world peace. Think: stilts for houses.
When we choose to invest in mitigation, we tackle the causes of climate change, some, if not most of which, are driven by the staggeringly out-of-control increases of carbon emissions and other byproducts of our worldwide industrialized society. Mitigation sets out simultaneously to reduce those emissions and to devise geo-engineering solutions such as carbon capture and sequestration.
There is a certain irony to the fact that we are so easily moved and so well-practiced in making charitable responses to obvious victims of mass carnage. Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy have prompted us to open our hearts and checkbooks to ease their pain. By contrast, less dramatic events that don’t make for such eye-popping TV coverage, such as our skyrocketing trend in carbon emissions, don’t trigger any such response. These intellectually challenging phenomena offer little chance for us to identify and act decisively on behalf of the victims.
Irony? Oh, for sure. Double irony, actually, since all of us are the victims of the silent, rampant climate change that is (so far) irreversibly deteriorating the possibilities for life on this planet. The big, noisy events like Katrina and Sandy distract us from the slow, silent, systemic degradation of ecosystems, biodiversity, water resources and worldwide agriculture. We may be certain that actual warfare will erupt between the haves and have-nots among peoples whose access to food and water is threatened — or has been actually destroyed — by climate change. It is not too much to say that climate change imperils world peace, and we look the other way at our own peril, even though we have the wealth and power to forestall its immediate impact on our citizenry for a while longer than others do.
As a society, we are sometimes tragically slow learners wallowing in denial (think: racism, sexism, homophobia), but it can be equally tragic when we prove to be inexperienced learners — those times when we encounter harsh lessons for the first time and are actually put in a position to choose between denial and acknowledgment. As for racism, sexism and homophobia, we were socialized into those sorry mind sets from the cradle, and because of that can almost explain away our glacial emergence into awareness, outrage and reform.
But there is no such hiding place when it comes to climate change. It has arrived on the scene while we are already in our adulthood, ostensibly awake and aware and capable of making sober judgments. This is not a spectator sport. We’re already on the playing field, so we might as well join a team and help shape the outcome.
My own recommendation is to join a group such as the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org), where a well-informed, nonpartisan team helps ordinary folks like us to understand the issues, voice our concerns and effectively assert our preferred solutions.
It’s time to become a player. Really, it is.
Eliot Daley is a Princeton writer. Contact him through his website eliotdaley.com.