What Is the Best Response to Climate Change?

03/06/2014 11:56 BST | Updated 02/08/2014 10:59 BST

Climate change is one of, if not the, greatest threats to our planet. Of course, this comes as no shock to many. But, what hasn't been stressed is the how: how do we reverse the catastrophic effects of global warming? Two potential solutions have circulated through international debate: mitigation and adaptation.

Buzzkill: mitigation will not work. Mitigation implies that a uniform policy will be just as effective at reducing CO2 in San Francisco as in Cape Town. It will not. True, the most carbon-intensive sectors in one country will most likely be the most carbon-intensive in another. But, the environment is not a single entity. Rather, the natural ecosystem is composed of multiple layers and facets that differ both seasonally and geographically. For instance, if a uniform policy were enacted in the United States, differences in ecological factors and precipitation patterns mean that the West Coast would fare differently than the South under said policy. The words "uniform" and "environment" should not be used in the same sentence. What's more, given that climate change falls above national interests, international organizations lack many of the conditions necessary to pass uniform environmental policy. For effective cooperation to occur in, say, the UN, there must be little uncertainty about the costs and benefits, higher certainty about the existence of linked benefits (e.g. trade and CO2 mitigation) and continuous cooperation amongst high-polluter countries and countries most effected by greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that these conditions will come to full fruition anytime soon.

That leaves us with adaptation. Costal systems, freshwater resources, and additional food sources will all be damaged as the world heats up. However, these biophysical areas are as diverse in their biological constituents as they are in their response to climate change. Effective adaptation policy attempts to accommodate this variability and acknowledges that adaptive capability varies amongst regions. Adaptation means anticipating adverse effects of climate change and enforcing measures that limit or hopefully prevent such effects. Effective policy will take into account our uncertainties and the ambiguity surrounding the scale and speed of warming patterns. Flood defenses, renewable energy subsidies, higher carbon prices, in addition to programs to preserve scarce resources and develop drought-tolerant crops have shown to minimize climate change damage.

If we don't do either of these--mitigation or adaptation--our future is extremely bleak. Like most problems, the cause needs to be identified, coherent debate must ensue, and effective solutions must be devised. Those solutions must be built around adaptation rather than mitigation.