The Tension in Climate Science Between Mitigation and Adaptation

7 minute read
Sobel is an atmospheric scientist and professor at Columbia University, host of the podcast “Deep Convection” and the author of “Storm Surge,” a book about Superstorm Sandy.

Recently a climate scientist named Patrick Brown posted on Twitter, and then in an op-ed, and in an interview with journalist Robinson Meyer, about a paper he had co-authored in the prominent journal Nature about the impact of global warming on wildfires. He described how, rather than write the paper as he thought best, he had tailored its message to what he thought the journal editors wanted. He excluded other factors relevant to wildfire risk—land use, forest management, to what extent fires are ignited by humans—even though those other factors might, he claimed, play bigger roles in the present and near-future risk than climate change.

Brown argued that science journals and journalists have a preference for papers with headlines of the form “climate change makes X worse” and that this does a disservice to the public, because the broader picture, including factors other than climate change, would also be useful to talk about for anyone trying to reduce wildfire risk.

I share some of the very negative reactions to Brown’s stunt that have been expressed by many climate scientists. The structure of his actions—publish a paper, then publicly speak out in a way that undermines it, while blaming the culture of the field—makes it look like his intent was to discredit the entire field.

But Brown’s own words are much more nuanced, and don’t express the same intent as his actions do. Whether this reflects naïvete, confusion, or disingenuousness on his part is a question about him that doesn’t interest me. He raises some broader issues, however, that are worth talking about regardless.

I want to focus on the biggest one: do the most prominent scientific journals, the media (from whom I’d argue these journals inherit some of their priorities), and scientists themselves prefer narratives of the form “climate change makes X worse,” as opposed to “climate change and a bunch of other factors affect X”? If so why, and is this a bad thing?

Read More: We Need Climate Action Everywhere, All At Once

First of all—despite the implications of a conspiracist headline about Brown in one of the right-leaning outlets to publish about it—there is no single “full truth” about something as big and complex as climate change, certainly not that can be captured in a single short research paper. Scientists should, of course, always draw their conclusions dispassionately and honestly from the data. But there are always choices to make, including what to address in the study to begin with. And those choices will be informed, consciously or unconsciously, by why one thinks their work is societally relevant.

Brown’s brouhaha highlights the disconnect between the prerogatives of climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

Mitigation—cutting carbon emissions—is a global problem, and at its root a simple one. A ton of carbon emitted anywhere has the same global impact, and we aren’t reducing emissions nearly fast enough to meet any safe climate target. The problem is political, economic, and cultural; we have to get people, governments, and corporations to do the right things. An article that says “climate change makes X worse”—something that enormous volumes of research shows to be true for many instances of “X”—helps to alert people to the impacts of climate change, and informs their opinions about the importance of mitigation.

But what if something else is presently making X worse (or better) to a much greater degree than global warming is? Isn’t “climate change makes X worse” then a misleading headline?

Not if mitigation is what’s at issue, because then it’s a question of accountability. Imagine that someone pollutes the air or water supply with a toxin that makes incidence of some disease increase measurably, but that other factors also contribute to the occurrence of the disease. I think most would agree that the polluter should be held accountable for the increase in illness they’d caused, even if the other factors contribute as much or more to the total number of people getting sick. To understand the pollution’s consequences—a necessary step towards stopping the pollution —it would be appropriate for scientists to publish research on those consequences, and the media to report on them. A focus on the consequences of carbon pollution is appropriate by the same reasoning.

On the other hand, if one were not concerned about holding the polluter accountable, but instead only about reducing the amount of illness as much as possible, then one should take a holistic look at all the factors that could cause the disease. This is analogous to climate adaptation.

Climate adaptation is generally local, mostly benefiting the place where it’s done. It can take many forms: hard physical infrastructure; restoring “natural capital” like mangroves; financial measures; early warning systems; you name it. But any adaptation involves intervention in a system that is also influenced by factors other than climate. While some approaches to adaptation try to address only the incremental difference made by human-induced climate change, this often doesn’t make sense—you can’t build the top foot of a seawall without building the part below that. The right approach to adaptation, in my view, is to try to understand all the relevant factors, including but not limited to climate, and try to define the solutions that lead to the best outcomes for humans and other species.

So if we are motivated primarily by mitigation, it makes perfect sense to ask to what extent climate change makes wildfires worse, and skip other questions. If we are motivated primarily by adaptation, it makes more sense to ask about all the factors contributing to wildfires. My reading is that Brown’s preferred framing is adaptation, but that he perceived cultural pressure to write a mitigation-framed paper.

Historically, it’s true that both climate science and the media have been more concerned about mitigation than adaptation. Talking about adaptation used to be seen as giving up on cutting emissions. This was a defensible view back when the impacts of warming were mostly in the hypothetical future. It isn’t any more, because we’re clearly starting to see the impacts now. While most climate professionals understand this, echoes of the anti-adaptation stance do linger.

And maybe there’s still some justification for it. The urgency of mitigation is hotly contested in our politics, with one of the U.S. two political parties entirely opposed to it. Prioritizing adaptation (sincerely or otherwise) can indeed sometimes be cover for minimizing accountability for the consequences of carbon pollution, and thus for opposing the energy transition.

So let me be clear about my own position: adaptation can’t be the main answer on climate. There are too many aspects of climate change that no plausible adaptation can protect us from, more so the more warming we allow to happen. Mitigation—especially, ceasing to burn fossil fuels— remains the most critical thing we can do for the whole planet’s longer-term climate future.

But because some climate change has already happened and more is certainly coming, we also have to adapt as best we can in order to reduce the harm it causes. And to do that, we do have to understand how climate change manifests locally, and how it interacts with all the diverse dimensions of our societies. It is becoming clearer that we are behind on doing some of the kinds of science that adaptation demands.

Most climate scientists don’t consciously frame their research as being about either mitigation or adaptation. Most I know would say they are just studying how the climate works.

But we are now starting to see more climate action of all kinds. Scientists (and journalists) can inform and support it better by being more conscious and clear about what our science does and doesn’t have to do with the different forms that action can take.

There’s no conspiracy to suppress the truth about the relative roles of climate and other factors in wildfires or any other hazard. But neither should research on these topics pretend to be untouched by the social and political issues that make the research relevant. We have to learn to be good scientists and good citizens at the same time, and to see those obligations as connected rather than at odds.

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