Friday, January 9, 2009

What Is Adaptation, Anyway?

Last December, I wrote a post about adaptation, and subsequently realized that I hadn't given many of you an adequate enough primer explaining what adaptation is, exactly. So, for this month's Green Mom's Carnival hosted by the Not Quite Crunchy Parent about global warming, I'm going to put on my teaching hat and try and explain a little what we mean when we talk about adaptation.

Basically, when we discuss climate change, there are two main points to look at: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation focuses on reducing carbon emissions and stabilizing the carbon content of the atmosphere. When we talk about reducing our carbon footprint, we're dealing with mitigation. Mitigation is probably what most people are familiar with because that's what is talked about the most.

Adaptation is talked about a lot less, for several reasons, but it is just as, or perhaps more important than mitigation. Basically, adaptation focuses on reducing vulnerability to climate change. Now, most people, when they think about adaptation, think about engineering and technological solutions to reduce vulnerability: stuff like sea walls, or better levees. This is certainly part of adaptation. But not all adaptation is technological. Adaptation might involve planting less water intense crops in a region vulnerable to drought. Or it might involve developing evacuation strategies in the event of a hurricane. In the third world, adaptation often runs concurrently with development. The idea is, the more developed a nation becomes, the less vulnerable its people are. The more we promote third world development, the more likely those nations will be able to weather climate change successfully.

Basically, say you are reducing your use of electricity because you want to lower your carbon footprint. In that case, you would be practicing mitigation. But let's see you want to reduce your use of electricity because you are worried that in the future you won't have ready access to electricity due to peak oil. Then you would be practicing adaptation.

On a global scale, adaptation is becoming increasingly important for a variety of reasons. One, because climate change is no longer a future occurrence. It's already happening in many parts of the world, and thus, people are already having to learn how to adapt. Two, because the stigma towards adaptation is luckily dying. Believe it or not, environmentalists, including Al Gore, used to think that if we talked about adapting to global warming, people would just forget about mitigation. Thus, adaptation was seen as something not to be discussed. Luckily, everyone has kind of come to their senses and people now realize that adaptation and mitigation can be pursued together.

All right, that's my basic introduction. Does anyone have any questions?

19 comments:

Farmer's Daughter said...

Thanks for your definition. When I think of adaptation in regards to climate change, I think in biological terms! You know, like how the dinosaurs were hot-weather adapted and went extinct when it got colder, how the Neandertals were short, stocky and muscular to retain heat during the ice age, and how all the wooly mammoths went extinct at the end of the ice age because they were cold-weather adapted (coindicentally, so did the Neandertals... but they were also out-competed).

The one thought that really brings me hope is that our human ancestors were intelligent enough to survive the ice age, and also were able to continue on surviving after the ice age. That makes me think that our intelligence is our adaptation that will allow us to survive another drastic change in climate, if our stubbornness and resistance to change doesn't kill us first.

Thanks for the explanation of what you mean when you say "adaptation," because this bio person thinks of it in a different way!

Maria said...

But adaptation serves a different purpose than mitigation, no? It seems like the point of adaptation is to stay alive no matter what, and the point of mitigation is so we don't end up living in a polluted wasteland and growing third arms from mercury consumption.

It also seems like, to some extent, adaptation is by definition going to happen whether it's widely discussed in academic circles or not. Move adapt or die, right?

Green Bean said...

Adaptation is so important and I think we should be doing both - adaptation and mitigation - simultaneously. In many cases, the two dovetail (e.g., your electricity example or a similar one with trying to reduce water usage). For individuals, we can certainly focus on those two together.

We need to remember, though, to work to mitigate and adapt to climate change on a global or at least national level as well. So often, we focus on reducing our own footprint or adapting in our own home. Let's remember to sign petitions, write letters and lobby, though, for those people who cannot afford to adapt.

ruchi aka arduous said...

Abbie, right, I mean if dinosaurs did go extinct when it got colder, which I have no idea if that's true, then what I would argue is that they didn't have enough adaptive capacity to adapt to warmer climates. I also thought the wooly mammoths went extinct because they were killed to extinction, but I'm sure you know more than I do on that point. But yes, your examples indicate failures to adapt. That all would be evolutionary adaptation. But there is also non-evolutionary adaptation that humans are capable of which is social and technological.

Maria, yes, you're right. The point of adaptation is different from mitigation, but the point that I think most people agree with, is that we need BOTH.

Joyce said...

I read an interesting novel a few years ago; "Greenlanders", by Jane Smiley. It takes place during a time of significant climate change at the end of the Middle Ages, in Greenland. The Eskimo type peole who lived there adapted well, the Norse settlers did not. It was very interesting, and in a way sheds some light on what we may face today (although they were getting colder, not warmer). A little off-topic, I suppose, but it might interest people. It was an excellent read.

ruchi aka arduous said...

GB, yes, you're right. Ironically those that can't afford to adapt on their own are those that badly need to develop adaptive capacity. We need to promote development to give them the opportunity to adapt.

Joyce, that does sound interesting. Actually Jared Diamond discusses this case in Collapse, but I generally like Smiley's writing style better. ;)

Anna (Green Talk) said...

Ruchi, would an adaptive practice include growing your own food without pesticides? Or would this fall into both categories because you are reducing your carbon footprint by not going to the supermarket to buy food shipped from across the country?

If we just learn the lessons that our own parents and grandparents taught us about who they had to reduce their consumption, grow victory gardens, and pitch in for the war efforts (WWII), we could adapt as well.

Mary said...

The ultimate "adaptation" that frightens me is when everything fails and people start grabbing for their guns. The SE US had a taste of that when the oil didn't arrive for a week last fall. When supplies fall short, tempers get shorter.

Chile said...

Mary, I think that circumstance really points to the importance of developing community-wide adaptation strategies. It's not enough to learn to adapt for your own family; we must work to teach others how to adapt, encourage them to do so, and work at the community level.

Mitigation is good, but in the big picture, we're a bit late. Humans need to adapt to the changes we've wrought in our world or, as Maria pointed out, die...

ruchi aka arduous said...

Anna, you're right. Growing your own food without pesticide can be seen as both depending on how you look at it!

Mary & Chile, I think you bring up a very important point. Thank you, Chile, I completely agree. Individual adaptation is not, in and of itself, enough. We definitely need more.

Lynn from organicmania.com said...

Ruchi,

Thanks for adding such an interesting post to this month's Green Moms carnival. Great explanation of adaptation vs. mitigation.

My main concern is that we do something! In the US, I think a lot of people are starting to assume that Obama is a miracle worker and he will "fix" climate change, along with the economic crisis, and every other crisis that comes along.

We have to keep our focus on strategies to fight climate change. Thanks for your contribution!

Lynn

ruchi aka arduous said...

Lynn, we do have to do *something* but I do think we have to be careful as to what that *something* is. We need to make sure that the policies we enact aid in the development of the third world, rather than inhibiting development.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Ruchi-
It's amazing that when we look at mass extinctions, like, say the dinosaurs, it's linked to climate. There's the meteor argument, but many experts argue that the fossil record shows most were extinct before the meteor hit.
Mammoths were hunted, that's true, but it's linked to climate as well. Most extinctions (except now... of course) were multifactorial, and climate is almost always involved.
For those who subscribe to punctuated equilibrium (quick periods of evolution followed by periods without change), the change is almost always related to climate somehow.

This is something that I think we do need to be consciously aware of, because you're right, we shoud have the ability to knowingly adapt, rather than waiting for evolution to kick in! (And I realize that my comment is outside of the scope of your original post... but thanks for humoring me since I think we can learn a lot from our evolutionary history).

Fake Plastic Fish said...

Ruchi, thanks for the explanation. I also was thinking in terms of evolutionary adaptation, when you mentioned it during our meeting, so this post helps me to think about short-term adaptation.

mother earth aka karen hanrahan said...

you are a natural educator ruchi

Going Crunchy said...

Excellent post Ard. I think there is some crossover in the two. I'm trying to reduce by planting gardens last year, but also trying to adapt to a different way of life. This may become increasingly important if food supplies are limited in the future.

I'm going to plan to double the efforts a gardening this year and it serves a dual purpose.

Diane MacEachern said...

Though adaptation is part of evolution, I think it gets us into trouble in the industrial age. It seems like the notion that we'll adapt to the problems we create generates a barrier to the idea that we should prevent problems from happening in the first place. I'd like to see a greater emphasis on "prevention" and more caution around the notion of adaptation.

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Do you realize that only people from high developed countries are concerned with it? Other peoples' interests are absolutely different

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