The Rising Tide

Time to adapt to climate change

November 01, 2008

There is growing worldwide momentum to address the problem of climate change. We need to reduce the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and eventually bring those emissions significantly below current levels. In contemporary policy debates, efforts to achieve these goals are called mitigation.

Mitigation, however, will not suffice. Even with aggressive global efforts to reduce emissions, the Earth’s climate will continue to change significantly for many decades because of the magnitude of past emissions and the inertia of social and physical systems. Of course, many uncertainties remain about how best to reduce emissions and how the climate system will respond. But we can now say with confidence that rapid climate change and its impacts are at hand. As a result, we face immediate choices about how to temper its worst consequences for vulnerable populations and regions.

Alongside mitigation, then, we also need policies focused on adaptation, on making sensible adjustments in the face of unavoidable changes. Moreover, we need to coordinate adaptation with mitigation, as the success of each will depend on the other. Current efforts to reduce emissions will, in due course, determine the severity of climate change, and thus the degree of adaptation required—or even possible—in the future. At the same time, by discovering at what point climatic change becomes too severe for our capacity to adapt, we will learn more about what levels of emissions might engender serious danger.

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