Development? Adaptation? Or something in between?


This week I’ve been thinking back to a class I took my first year of grad school. It was focused on climate change – not the science alone, but the more nuanced concepts of mitigation, adaptation and resiliency. These ideas come back to me often when I hear climate change being discussed in the media and in more political contexts.

Here in the U.S. when we talk about climate change (yes, I am well aware it is not currently in the news, due to more pressing topics like, oh, I don’t know, our government shutting down), it is at worst focused on nitpicking valid scientific data, and at best more productively focused on options for mitigation. Mitigation, to be clear, refers to those practices that will help curb the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that human development produces in large quantity.  President Obama’s recent Climate Plan, and actions taken by the EPA over the past several years, sought to promote this idea of mitigation. But while mitigation is obviously an important concept–and I am in no way dismissing it’s place in the climate discussion–a sole focus on mitigation activities seems futile. Given the way that greenhouse gasses collect and remain in our atmosphere, it is too late to focus on mitigation alone – even if we were to stop emitting carbon, it would not be enough to stop the impacts of climate change.

Adaptation is starting to become the new buzzword, primarily in academic circles, and is seen almost as the next step after mitigation. Adaptation, for lack of a set definition, is the practice of dealing with the tangible impacts of climate change. It’s what happens after mitigation fails (or gets started too late). For example, changing farming practices to allow for continued food production in an increasingly arid environment might be an example of adaptation. Adaptation is also closely tied to the concept of resiliency.  Originally a scientific term that relates to ecological systems, resiliency applied to climate change is more socially focused. It’s the ability of people to be ok–to maintain life and livelihoods–even after climate change alters their lives. I tend to think of resiliency as a measurement of the level of people’s ability to adapt, though as I experienced in the class I referred to earlier, this is up for debate.

Now, to the ideas that really interest me. Or perhaps paradox is the word. The underlying factors that influence adaptation and resiliency are quite similar to indicators of “development”.  In a word: resources. If you have money, access to markets, the ability to purchase food, a road to drive on, a changing climate is (barring disaster) something that is in your capabilities to handle. As an aspiring international development practicioner, I struggle with whether or not adaptation to climate change is separate from traditional international development priorities and values, and funding. If access to livelihoods, infrastructure and other resources determines a community’s ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, then do we need to even talk about adaptation to climate change? Should we maybe just focused on increased sustainable development that considers mitigation? More specifically what I struggle with is whether or not adaptation to climate change should be it’s own field of practice, with organizations devoted to its promotion. Or if simply increasing a community’s general level of development – infrastructure, economic productivity, social networks – will make communities more resilient, and hence better able to adapt to climate change.

I lean towards the side of separate but connected. To me, the fact that climate change impacts are already being felt in vulnerable communities, and the reality that international development is at times a slow-moving field, an explicit focus on adaptation seems necessary. But perhaps in the vein of sustainability and long-term view of development, it should still be a concept for international development agencies to struggle with and incorporate into their more general initiatives.

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