The prime minister is saying it and so is the leader of the opposition. What is climate change adaptation, why is everyone talking about it and where does it leave climate change mitigation?
The phrase “climate change adaptation” has become ubiquitous lately as the country looks to pick up the pieces after the cyclone and the Auckland floods. The focus is on the immediate need for the worst-affected but these two events have prompted an urgent need to change where and how we live, and to prepare for more extreme weather events. The upweighting of climate change adaptation over climate mitigation (more on that in a moment) feels like a very recent phenomenon in this country, so what are they and why do we need both?
What is climate change adaptation?
Climate change is real (no further correspondence will be entered into). It’s not only happening, but disrupting our way of life. If it’s not causing extreme weather events, it’s intensifying them and causing thousands of people to be displaced. That means we must think about how people, business and essential infrastructure could be out of harm’s way and resilient to rising sea levels, flooding and other climate change impacts. It might be moving people, it might be building defence mechanisms like sea walls but ultimately, adaptation is the preparation for the inevitability of climate change impacts on our lives.
What is climate change mitigation?
Mitigating climate change is largely defined as a bid to cut emissions. Those are the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that have built up in the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat and warming the planet. For about 12,000 years (since the Ice Age) the earth’s average temperature remained quite stable. Human-caused climate change (anthropogenic) has now warmed the planet by about 1.2C above its pre-industrial trend. In 2015, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement which set a target to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Preventing further warming is climate change mitigation and it involves shifts in behaviour, a big decrease in the reliance on fossil fuels, and changes to industries that contribute to emissions.
So why the shift to talking about adaptation?
We have to rapidly deal with adapting to climate change because we have failed to mitigate it. “We” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here because, while our individual behaviours and the industrial and agricultural activity of small countries like New Zealand impacts how quickly the planet has warmed, a recent report said just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. At the 1.5C increase, things get pretty bad. Coral reefs die, once-in-a-century weather events become more common, heat waves increase and glaciers continue melting – contributing to sea level rise. Scientists give us a 50:50 chance of avoiding the 1.5C rise.
Sounds bad – but if we’re adapting it’s fine?
We’re running a bit late on adaptation and it’s not just Cyclone Gabrielle’s devastation that has prompted this observation. New Zealand’s approach to adaptation is currently reactive, not proactive. We have tended to look at what needs to be done after a severe weather event occurs, not before. Climate change minister James Shaw is trying to accelerate the third tranche of the Resource Management Act reforms which are specifically focused on climate adaptation but there currently isn’t even a draft bill on the table. It’s also fair to say that while adaptation is urgently needed and pragmatic, there is an element of political convenience to the rapid embrace of it. Talking about adaptation versus mitigation as if it’s either/or is helpful for those who calculate the political and literal cost of asking certain sectors to bear the cost of mitigation through agricultural emissions pricing or changing behaviour like reducing our reliance on petrol-fuelled cars. Adaptation can help reinforce the idea that we can maintain the status quo because we’ll all just build walls or move.
Move? You keep saying move?
Yes, move. Move away from areas that will be impacted by flooding or rising sea levels. In New Zealand around 750,000 New Zealanders, and 500,000 buildings worth more than $145b are near rivers and in coastal areas already exposed to extreme flooding. Our most obvious example of adaptation is the managed retreat of Matatā, a small town in the Bay of Plenty where in 2005 torrential rain caused multiple landslides and ultimately the decision to move people away from that land. That was a managed retreat in reactive form and it took almost 18 years.
Managed retreat? What is that?
Managed retreat is the moving away from areas identified as risky. It reduces or eliminates exposure to extreme weather events. According to the Ministry of Environment, it enables people to relocate their houses, activities, and sites of cultural significance away from at-risk areas within a planned period.
So the government will just buy my house and move me to a safer place?
In theory, sort of, but we are yet to establish how that will all work. There is the National Adaptation Plan, released in August which doesn’t contain details on who will pay for the costs of adaptation whether it be houses, businesses, or whole communities and industries that need to move. It is also fraught with philosophical, legal and moral questions. In Western jurisdictions, property rights are baked into the notion of individual freedom. New Zealand isn’t referred to as a “property owning democracy” for nothing. Iwi have even closer ties to land — whenua is home, a place to stand. Adaptation measures like managed retreat place a higher burden on governments (local and central) to take action and that can cause social and cultural reverberations when a top-down approach is used. Just imagine your entire community being forced to move and what that loss, even beyond the bounds of your home, means.
So mitigation and adaptation are completely separate?
There are plenty of examples where adaptation and mitigation are working in unison, doing double duty so to speak. Protecting wetlands is one where these areas do the job of not only keeping us safe from flooding but they sequester and store carbon. Microgrids are another. Microgrids are small collections of power-generating assets that use renewable energy sources. They not only ensure we’re less reliant on centralised power systems, improving our resilience against extreme weather events where one big station gets knocked out causing loss of electricity to hundreds of thousands, but they don’t use fossil fuels.
But if climate change mitigation feels kind of hopeless because big industry needs to change, why not just wait until the government sorts out adaptation?
With one psychologist saying the country is in a state of chronic stress and many people feeling anxious while watching what used to be an innocent weather report, feeling like you have agency is increasingly important. This might sound a bit woo woo to those who deal in the hard metrics of greenhouse gas measurement and agricultural emission pricing, but there is plenty of research to suggest that easing eco-anxiety comes from taking action. Those might be things that feel increasingly silly in the face of large-scale climate-related events, like using a keep cup or biking to work, but they help create a sense of control and are still a net-good for the planet.
Just rolling over and waiting for the government to arrive to buy your house and move you to higher, dryer land is counterproductive and at this point, we have no real sense of how that will work. There is also research that suggests that an increased focus on the reality of having to adapt to climate change also forces a focus on mitigation, and that is what drives transformation, so stay focused on what you can do and continue to agitate for climate change mitigation measures.
Quite simply, we can not keep making climate change worse, no matter how good we get at adapting. At some point, adaptation simply becomes fighting to survive unless we keep the pressure on to continue mitigating climate change.