When mitigation is adaptation

The cascade of disruptions during the first quarter of 2020 – wildfires in Australia, flooding in Europe, mass migration from the Middle East, and the coronavirus pandemic – predicts the new normal. From now on, we will be reducing the causes of future socio-ecological disruptions while still recovering from the effects of the latest disruption. When prevention of disasters is constrained by coping with them, it is time to rethink what we mean by mitigation and adaptation. 

In the turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic, disaster reduction organizations such as the World Health Organization focus on mitigation, in other words, limiting the adverse impacts of the virus (1). Calling these actions mitigation may confuse the devoted climate change researcher, who since the IPCC’s first assessment report in 1990 has thought of limiting adverse impacts as adaptation (2). Were they to apply their own terminology to pandemics, climate change researchers would say that mitigation of a pandemic refers to interventions aiming to reduce its causes.

It is high time to clarify concepts when two expert communities dealing with urgent, critical and intertwined global challenges risk confusing causes and effects in their public communication about crises. It turns out the conceptual minefield also provides good reasons to re-think the meaning of mitigation and adaptation. Let us first look at the details of the terminological confusion. 

When the disaster reduction community talks about mitigation, it means “the lessening or limitation of the adverse impacts of hazards and related disasters” (see Table). Compare this to the climate change community’s definition of adaptation: “The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects.” One can hardly argue that “lessening adverse impacts” would differ much from “adjusting to climate effects.” What is mitigation for the disaster reduction community is adaptation to the climate change community.

Table: Comparing the terminology of climate change and disaster reduction (3,4)

A closer look at the Table reveals even more intriguing nuances. The climate change community and the disaster reduction community seem to be in broad agreement over the meaning of the term adaptation. Put succinctly, it means “adjustment to climate and its effects” to both communities (Table). But then the disaster reduction community makes a conceptual leap that effectively equates adaptation with mitigation. Adaptation is defined as “adjustment to climate and its effects, which moderates harm” while mitigation is “limitation of adverse impacts of disasters.” Since it is difficult to see any real difference between “moderation of harm” and “limitation of adverse impacts of disasters,” the disaster reductionists in fact state that mitigation is adaptation.

In sum, we have the disaster reduction community’s understanding of mitigation being the same as their understanding of adaptation, which in turn means the same as the climate change community’s understanding of adaptation. This leaves mitigation as understood by the climate change community as the outlier in this conceptual scheme: “A human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”

To be true, the climate change community has in a 2018 IPCC Report (5) on the risks of extreme events recognized the contradiction in terminology between the two communities. But the report’s often-heard conclusion that “climate adaptation and mitigation can complement each other” is not entirely satisfying. At least three reasons motivate revisiting the concepts.

First, the climate change research community has for years been split between those studying mitigation and those studying adaptation. Since climate research is inevitably politically charged, mitigation researchers are often seen as the optimists with a can-do attitude and adaptation researchers as the pessimists who have given up on pro-active measures to counter climate change. When decision makers responsible for science policy attach politically charged labels to the purportedly neutral categories of adaptation and mitigation, the association can be toxic for both the science and policy of climate change. Mere pleas for the complementarity of mitigation and adaptation have little effect on contestation over the visibility and resources of research.

Terminology in crisis

Second, both the science and discourse on climate change have since the IPCC’s 1.5-degree report (6) switched to crisis mode. What used to be climate warming is now climate heating. What used to be climate change is now climate emergency. The playing field has changed. Any measure to mitigate climate change today takes place in the broader context of climate adaptation, simply because we are already in the middle of largely uncontrolled climate change. 

The conceptual change is akin to the one observed in sustainable development, where the image of an equally balanced triplicate of social, economic and ecological sustainability has been replaced by concentric circles of the economy enclosed within society, which in turn are enclosed within ecosystems. Just as any socio-economic policy is subject to ecological boundary conditions, so is any climate mitigation measure subject to the limits posed by the adaptation measures we are already struggling with.

Third and following from the last point, the climate change community’s definition of mitigation would be more realistic if it adopted the same kind of conceptual “fuzziness” that is observed in the disaster reduction community’s definitions. Recall how the disaster reduction community specified its definition of adaptation (“adjustment to climate and its effects”) with a qualifier (“which moderates harm”), which effectively equates adaptation with mitigation in disaster reduction. The climate change community would be wise to modify its definition of mitigation with the same qualifier: “A human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.” 

The key benefit of this redefinition of mitigation for the climate change community would be enhanced attention on precaution. Rather than accepting any mitigation action as long as it reduces the sources or enhances the sinks, the intervention would additionally need to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. Excluded from these precautionary mitigation efforts would be those that fail to moderate harm. The terminological modification would entail considering the technological, institutional and economic path dependencies of mitigation options. In other words: Are the mitigation options appropriate in light of what we know about existing adaptation challenges? What future adaptation challenges would the mitigation options potentially generate, if implemented?

Legacy problems

Unfortunately, path dependencies often pose policy dilemmas, because mitigation becomes much more difficult when considered in light of adaptation. For example, globalized industrial production based on fossil fuels served us well until its negative impacts on planetary ecosystems became clear. As a result, the fossil infrastructure is now a burden. And Finland’s industrial lock-in with paper and pulp manufacturing was a great bioenergy innovation when carbon neutrality was the target of climate policy: carbon neutrality was achieved as long as forest growth equaled the consumption of wood by the industry. Now that carbon negativity is necessary and forests are the only feasible carbon sink, the industrial lock-in has become a burden. 

Sometimes only crises reveal the unwanted lock-ins. Finland’s public daycare system, which during normal times enables both parents in a family to work, has become a Catch-22 vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic. Shutting down daycare centers would be key to stopping the spreading of the virus. But it would also prevent vitally important work by those parents who have jobs in the critical functions of the society. For the time being, daycare centers remain open – an epidemiologically suboptimal solution. 

When considering future mitigation options, precaution and foresight are needed more than ever. A carbon capture and storage project that fails as a result of an unstable subsurface environment and leads to large scale releases of carbon dioxide will wipe out the originally intended mitigation and forge a path to nothing but adaptation. Equally questionable is climate mitigation through mass production of solar panels and windmills, if implemented with technologies that require costly adaptation to the adverse impacts of rampant mining of rare earths.

Precautionary foresight is the key lesson that the disaster reduction community has to offer to the climate change community. Climate mitigation interventions make sense only to the extent that they do not endanger our adaptive capacity.