Adaptation to Allow More Katrinas?

Photo by Flickr user Spiritwood Images under Creative Commons


The debate over climate change mitigation versus adaptation rose to a boil this week as the World Climate Conference kicked off in Geneva, vowing to bring adaptation front and center. Speaking about this new focus, WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud stressed the importance of addressing the impacts of climate change that are already inevitable, like the rise of sea waters and the spread of diseases like malaria.

Following the release of California’s Climate Adaptation Strategy last month, Tony Brunello of the California National Resources Agency told me that “it used to be that you’d get slapped in the face for talking about adaptation…it was seen as doing nothing and taking away from mitigation efforts.” But, he said, anti-adaptation ferver has mostly died down as it has become clearer that mitigating climate change without bracing for impact is no longer realistic.

This week, however, that debate has grown more contentious, as some environmental writers and activists have pointed out adaptation’s bargain with the devil: because resources are limited, it will undoubtedly divert funds from mitigation. Calling adaptation a “cruel eupmemism,” Climate Progress writes that this increasing focus on adaptation is unrealistic, irresponsible, and could allow, rather than prevent, more disasters like Hurricane Katrina across the world:

First, the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to Hurricane Katrina, but I’m certain that every last one of them wishes we had prevented the disaster with stronger levees. The multiple catastrophes—extreme drought, extreme flooding, extreme weather, extreme temperatures—that global warming will bring can be suffered through, but I wouldn’t call it adaptation.

Second, a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to “adapt” New Orleans to the threat. We didn’t make the levees able to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a category 4).

Third, even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.

Adaptation is likely to play a key role at December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Earlier this year, Osvaldo Canziani, a meteorologist who once co-chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote on the conference’s COP15 website that world leaders must discuss adaptation. But he was careful to add that “this suggestion does not mean that we leave out the mitigation issue.”

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.