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Mitigation, adaptation or do nothing: Responding to climate change

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison both ignore the urgency of the climate emergency (image via YouTube)

When U.S. President Joe Biden declared climate change the "number one issue facing humanity" during the 2020 campaign, concerned citizens breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Former President Donald Trump had spent his time in office denying climate change, dismantling environmental protections and defunding environmental organisations. The United States would finally take climate change seriously and, as a result, other countries would be forced to follow suit.

Within hours of his inauguration, President Biden began to undo four years of climate change inaction and anti-environment policies. He moved to re-join the Paris Climate Accord and halt the Keystone XL pipeline contract.

It was widely reported that Biden’s election victory would "turn up the heat" on the Morrison Government to take the climate crisis seriously. But the Prime Minister made it abundantly clear that Australia would not be dictated to and would act in its own interests. Australia’s position was strident.

In direct opposition to strong climate change action, Australia would continue to pursue fossil fuel-led economics.

But anthropogenic climate change is not just a political problem, it is also an ethical one.

There are two main responses to the climate catastrophe: mitigation and adaptation. There is, of course, another response: wait and see and do nothing. The latter is the default position for many politicians, Australian included.

Mitigation refers to lessening the suffering, severity or gravity caused by climatic changes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes adaptation as an:

‘... adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.’

Mitigation is about prevention. Adaptation is not about modifying individual behaviour in order to adapt to the changing climate. Adaptation is about changing or altering the environment to suit the new climatic conditions. While mitigation is focused on prevention, adaptation is about lessening harm. Adaptation seeks to find a cure.

Geoengineering is one example of adaptation. Geoengineering, or climate intervention, relies on large-scale (often untested) intervention to counteract climate change. Examples include solar reflection and carbon dioxide removal. It is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted: too little too late.

Carbon offsetting appears, on first inspection, as a mitigation technique. We consume, offset the associated carbon emissions and our impact is thus neutralised. However, offsetting does nothing to reduce overall consumption. It does nothing to stop overconsumption of finite resources.

In fact, it offers us little more than the ability to ease our consumer consciences. We can consume to our heart’s content and convince ourselves that we make no contribution to climate change. Yet, carbon offsetting is better understood as a "do nothing" approach.

While carbon offsetting may ease consciences it is problematic, not least because it is difficult to assess the efficacy of offsetting schemes. Because offsetting is usually focused on transport and energy emissions, its worth is limited.

Unless we offset all of our consumption and producers do too, we are not really offsetting the harm that we cause by the totality of our consumption. This is not to say that offsetting should be abandoned, rather we should be aware of its limitations. While offsetting may be ineffective, perhaps impossible, it is probably not unethical.

Climate adaptation is unethical. It is also a totally inadequate response to a very serious problem. Relying on adaptation to meet the challenges that are brought about by climate change is like putting a sticking plaster on a severed limb.

How can we adapt to such a momentous challenge? Should we rely on geoengineering to enable us to live in a climate-changed world? What are the flow-on consequences of solar reflection and carbon dioxide removal?

It is true to say that we will be forced to adapt to climatic changes that are already in train. But as the only response, adaptation it is ineffective and a potentially dangerous scenario with unknown consequences.

Unless we mitigate climate change, we are faced with a scenario that is not only unethical but also potentially irreversible. Unless we act quickly to mitigate climate change, and scientists have been saying this for decades, adaptation may be all we have.

When it comes to individuals, climate change adaptation refers to modifying behaviour to fit the new circumstances. We can move away from the coast in response to rising sea levels. We can insulate our homes better in response to extreme temperatures. And, we can change the climate through various (often untested) geoengineering experiments.

This is, of course, only possible for the wealthy. Climate change is a first world problem; westernised production and consumption processes are largely to blame (and we are responsible for our part in the problem).

Mitigation is the only real option if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. Adaptation will be our only option if we don’t act decisively now.

We must change our consumptive behaviour in order to mitigate the effects of climate change. Climate change is a first world problem as it is largely driven by consumerism. It is also a first-world problem inasfar as the solution lies with us – as wealthy consumers – rather than with those who have contributed little to the problem.

It is unfair to expect those with little means to pay reparations towards a problem that they did not cause. Yet, it is likely that those who are least able to adapt to it are those who will suffer the consequences of climate change the most.

Responding to anthropogenic climate change doing nothing and relying on adaptation via geoengineering are unethical responses. Mitigation – preventing climate change – is the only ethical option. The time has run out. We cannot rely on mitigation alone. We need to change our consumptive behaviour yet we are consuming more than ever. We need to find alternatives to the economic growth model and reframe what it means to be prosperous.

The time to act was thirty years ago; now we have very little time left. But act we must.

Dr Amanda McLeod is a writer and historian from West Gippsland, Victoria, Australia. She holds a PhD in consumer history from Monash University and has written widely on capitalism and its discontents.

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