In the late 1950s, Ian Burton, then a geographer at the University of Chicago, learned about a troubling conundrum with levees. These expensive and engineering-intensive strategies—which the US Army Corps of Engineers favored for reining in floods along big river floodplains—worked well for holding back intermediate amounts of water. But they gave people a false sense of safety. After a levee went up, sometimes more people actually built on and moved into the land behind it. Then, if an oversize flood eventually poured over or broke through the levee, the disaster could damage more property and cause more havoc than it might have before engineers began meddling.
The paradox would become a classic lesson in how not to adapt to the hazards nature might throw at the human-built environment. It was also an important cautionary tale for an even larger set of disasters and dilemmas caused by climate change. (The problem was on full display when New Orleans’s levees failed in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, submerging parts of the Lower Ninth Ward with up to 15 feet of water, by some estimates. That storm was also made worse by shifting climate conditions and rising sea levels.)
Burton began to work on climate change in the 1990s. He jumped into an emerging but then somewhat stunted field called “climate change adaptation”: study and policy on how the world could prepare for and adapt to the new disasters and dangers brought forth on a warming planet. Among Burton’s colleagues, “I was the only one who put my hand up” to work on adaptation, he says now.
Most other climate change researchers were preoccupied with questions of how to cut back on the carbon emissions that were overloading the global atmosphere—an area of research called “climate change mitigation.” But Burton felt that people also needed to consider the dicey and unstable conditions that could arrive in the future, so that they wouldn’t start building insufficient levees or inadequate seawalls, or other poorly considered coping strategies that could make things worse later on.
In that moment, he also walked into an area of controversy and misunderstanding that may have ultimately stymied work on climate change for years or even decades thereafter. Some climate experts felt that any talk about adaptation distracted from the work of keeping pollution out of the atmosphere: it sounded less like a coping mechanism and more like giving up. “When you came along and argued for adaptation, the mitigation people said, ‘Go away we don’t need you,’” he recalls now, slightly tongue-in-cheek. “‘If you say we need to adapt, then you’re undermining our case. So we prefer not to hear from you. You’re the enemy.’”
Essentially, the experts on both sides were trying to chart a path for human survival and well-being in a mounting global crisis—but they weren’t always working together.
Since at least the late 1980s, before the impacts of climate change were as present and obvious as they are now, scientists understood that humans had already pumped enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we’d all likely feel the heat later on—even if they didn’t yet know the severity of those impacts. Because of a likely “lag time between emissions and subsequent climate change,” the world “may already be committed to a certain degree of change,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the lead international scientific body studying this crisis, wrote in its first major report in 1990.
Therefore, adaptation might be necessary, the report concluded. In 1993, the year Bill Clinton became president, Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment (which no longer exists) released a report on which dozens of scientists and experts consulted: “If climate change is inevitable, then so is adaptation to climate change,” it read. Carbon emissions cuts were still an essential remedy, the authors wrote, but people should get ready for change and uncertainty, especially when dealing with “long-lived structures or slow-to-adapt natural systems.”
But there were also numerous disagreements on the subject of whether and how to adapt—and what that even meant. In the early 1990s, when the international diplomatic community adopted one of the most important treaties on global warming—the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which would later lead to the 2015 Paris Agreement—many leaders from less-developed countries in the Global South, especially island nations, were already clamoring for financial and technical help with adaptation. The impacts of climate change would hit these countries hard, flooding large parts of Bangladesh and threatening island states like the Maldives with catastrophic levels of inundation.
But more developed countries in the Global North tried to skirt these discussions out of worry for their own financial liability, recalls social scientist Lisa Schipper, who attended many of these negotiations early in her career. “So anything that would give the impression that they’re responsible, was like, ‘Oh, shut that door.’”
The Global South ultimately succeeded in securing a pledge in the treaty to “assist the developing country parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting costs of adaptation.” But questions about how much the North owes the South for climate damages have remained a contentious topic in international negotiations over the years.
Also in the 1980s and 1990s, some right-wing groups and industry lobbies, most notoriously the fossil-fuel industry, began spreading climate disinformation, attempting to discredit the scientific research that demonstrated both the causes and the consequences of climate change. Many of these groups would not discuss adaptation, because that would require admitting that the planet was actually warming.
By contrast, most adaptation scientists felt that emissions cuts were vital. But there were also a few voices, such as Jesse Ausubel, a researcher with the Rockefeller University, who argued that humans were adaptable and already “climate-proofing” societies. Human systems were becoming “less vulnerable to climate,” Ausubel wrote in a 1991 commentary in Nature, as the economy and employment shifted indoors. Societies, he said, should focus on the “inventive genius, economic power, and administrative competence that make the many technologies useful in adapting to climate available to the most people.” (That same year, he also discussed the importance of decarbonization in another paper.)
Vice President Al Gore, in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, reacted vehemently against the idea that “we can adapt to just about anything,” seemingly casting a pall over the whole field—calling it a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in the ability to react in time to save our own skins.”
Some adaptation researchers now say all this divisiveness may have hampered climate efforts early on, and created delays that have left the world scrambling to cope with heat, wildfires, storms, and instability.
The polarization of adaptation and mitigation might also have created blind spots that made it harder to push for planet-cooling policies. For one thing, the scientists who studied emissions and the atmosphere were usually experts in various branches of physical sciences—like physics, chemistry, and oceanography. Adaptation researchers often came from fields that dealt with human systems and their foibles—emergency management, geography, urban planning, sociology. The former group of scientists put together complex models of the global atmospheric system and tried to make predictions based on assumptions about what humans might choose to do. Policymakers and diplomats who tried to interpret these models sometimes arrived at an overblown sense of optimism—in part because the world had so successfully acted in the late 1980s to ban the gases that were damaging the Earth’s ozone layer. But climate change is a much thornier problem, requiring a shift away from the fossil fuels that have powered so much of the global economy. The problem required facing human messiness and complexity.
As the world shifted more toward adaptation work, “we realized that you needed models of decision-making—that it’s a decision problem, not a science problem,” says Thomas Downing, who began his career studying disaster response and then moved into adaptation research in the 1990s. The early global climate predictions were “modeling a very idealized world, as if climate change is just one little thing you can tinker with.” If adaptation and mitigation experts had come together, perhaps they would have better understood how to confront stubborn and tangled global politics. Perhaps they would have overcome more obstacles sooner.
As a professional field, climate change adaptation remained neglected, misunderstood, and small through the early 2000s, when Lara Hansen, an ecotoxicologist by training, began working on the subject for the World Wildlife Fund. Hansen and her colleagues would joke that all the world’s adaptation experts and researchers “could fit in an elevator.” But soon, the field began to mushroom. For one thing, it had become clearer that emissions were not dropping—especially after the George W. Bush administration announced in 2001 that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, another international agreement to prod countries to rein in atmospheric carbon.
The president’s inaction threw a wrench into international negotiations; partly as a result, when the United Nations forged another treaty called the Marrakesh Accords, they included far more about adaptation than in the past. If the US was going to keep dumping carbon into the sky without limit, then the whole world would have far more things to adapt to.
But environmental groups were still often hesitant to wade into the topic—a missed opportunity, Hansen thinks. “I have long said that adaptation is the gateway drug to mitigation. Because once you see how big the problem will be for your community and how much your way of life will have to change,” she says, “suddenly it’s like, ‘Well, that sucks. It would be a hell of a lot easier to just stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.’”
In 2006, in a hotel ballroom in Florida, she led a workshop for a couple hundred people to talk about coral reef conservation, including commercial fishing companies and tourism businesses that were not as familiar with the implications of climate change. That evening, at a local theater, the workshop organizers screened Al Gore’s climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth and aired a video that simulated future floods in south Florida. “I had it zoomed into the Florida Keys,” Hansen recalls, “and you could see that with a two-meter rise in sea level and a Category One hurricane storm surge, the only thing that was still standing in the Florida Keys were a couple of highway bridges and the Key West cemetery.” The audience asked her to replay it three times. Afterward, Hansen said, she heard there was much more interest in mitigation efforts from people in the region.
In the years since, the ranks of adaptation experts have continued to grow exponentially. In 2008, Hansen cofounded an organization called EcoAdapt, a clearinghouse of adaptation reports and lessons, and a convener of experts from around the country. When the Obama administration required federal agencies to develop adaptation plans, it prompted a flurry of other institutions to do the same. “It is actually the thing that probably got more state and local governments thinking about it than anything previously had,” Hansen says.
But adaptation work likely still suffers from some of the constraints it bore in the beginning. Infrastructure, for instance, is built on a slow timeline, and the lag in understanding and acceptance means that planners haven’t necessarily caught up. Burton has noted how some of the railroads in the United Kingdom were ill-suited to withstand the recent heat wave. “The railway lines were designed for what the climate has been over the last 50 years,” he lamented, not what the climate is now and is going to become.
Moreover, because mitigation and adaptation have been siloed, projects designed to reduce emissions are sometimes not suited to handle extra heat, storms, or high waters. For instance, if a dam is constructed to draw more electricity from hydropower and less from fossil fuels, it may fail if drought and declining snowpack make river flow more feeble. Moreover, in some locations, a dam can boost the population of malaria-bearing mosquitoes—and become lethal for families living nearby.
A poorly designed adaptation project can compound human misery rather than relieve it. As a result, much adaptation research now has a strong ethical and practical backbone—grounded in the study of human vulnerability. Those who are in the throes of poverty, instability, medical issues, discrimination, poor housing, and a range of other strains will usually feel the brunt of any additional heat, stress, or disaster first. And failing to consider the most vulnerable people and places can jeopardize the health and security of everyone else, too.
Internationally, politicians and experts are still neglecting big questions about how to help the vulnerable adapt—for the collective well-being of the other humans on the planet. What happens when vast regions or even entire nations have to pack up and move? How might this create political instability everywhere or disrupt the global food supply?
In the background, there remain a few voices insisting that adaptation alone can address our current runaway crisis—usually from “super-privileged white men,” quips Schipper. Danish statistician and political scientist Bjorn Lomborg has long insisted that people would adapt easily to whatever lay ahead, no matter how extreme. In frequent columns in the Wall Street Journal, Lomborg often lambasts environmentalists and climate scientists and criticizes their findings, with sentiments like “Adaptation is much more effective than climate regulations at staving off flood risks” appearing in one commentary, and “Human beings are pretty good at adapting to their environment, even if it's changing. Keep that in mind when you see another worried headline about climate disasters” in another.
Hansen, who has by now spent two decades researching adaptation strategies, calls such arguments “patently ridiculous.”
“Unchecked, climate change is unadaptable—like, we will so fundamentally change the landscape of the planet that it would be impossible.”
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