Pugwash: In climate debate, people must consider mitigation or adaptation

Credit: Eunice Oh/ Credit: Eunice Oh/

At the last Pugwash meeting, we discussed whether or not the world’s climate change policies should tend toward mitigation or adaptation. By mitigation, we meant lessening the effects of climate change. By adaptation, we meant changing in anticipation of climate change.


During our discussion, we came up with some significant reasons for mitigation-based measures. Perhaps the most significant reason for prevention is that we do not know what the long-term effects of climate change will be. Thus, any adaptation attempts may prove to be woefully futile in preventing environmental destruction. For example, we may believe that a policy that encourages moving away from shorelines will provide safety for humanity, yet rising temperatures may destroy our capability to produce agriculture. Thus, we deal with one effect of climate change, but are doomed to face another that may be much harder to mitigate.

On the other hand, a substantial investment into curbing our carbon emissions may mitigate the effects of climate change. With prevention, we no longer have to use models with vast uncertainties to attempt to guess where mitigation will be necessary.

Prevention may be more costly upfront, but may lead to long-term vast economic gains when compared to adaptation. If we experience a run-away greenhouse effect, such as when melting glaciers lead to an increase of methane (a greenhouse gas) release, we may have to deal with an increasing rate of needed mitigation for however many years until we can reverse the effect. Such a situation could be catastrophic and is very likely more economically tolling than an upfront investment in cleaner energy.

Due to the long-term payoff of preventative measures, we decided at Pugwash that it was unlikely that the private sector could be responsible for implementation. On the other hand, one Pugwash member did point out how large companies, such as Google, have an image to present to the public and may make green business moves in order to foster an environmentally conscious reputation. Countering this point, another member mentioned how companies as ubiquitous as Google do not have to foster such a reputation, because their product is so vital we will use it regardless. Preventative measures may be costly, but they will grant our species peace of mind regarding our survival.


Other Pugwash members argued that, when faced with climate change, it might be impossible to pass policies in time to make a difference. There was disagreement on what would be an effective strategy. Some people advocated direct regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. Some argued for less direct intervention in this case. Regulations could prove hard to pass and could lead to energy shortages as the market scrambles to find new, effective sources of energy. Even market solutions like carbon taxes would be met with resistance from producers. These policies also don’t cover all that contribute to greenhouse emissions. Expanding these policies to other products would make the political battle even longer. As time goes on, we might reach a point where even a successful series of laws to protect the environment has no real effect. There are more frequent natural disasters in places unable to deal with them now. Members said there needs to be a faster solution.

Further, there are more issues than climate change. In the United States specifically, much of the physical infrastructure is outdated and would fail easily. The power grid is a good example. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reported that only nine substations have to fail to cause a national blackout. Our infrastructure needs rebuilding already, so why not build it resilient to climate change? If the project solves other problems, it will face far less political resistance. In America, the infrastructure can be made more reliable while also providing a more lasting defense against climate change that could help sooner.

Adaptation to climate change can also reach international levels. Regions that contribute little to climate change still suffer its effects. They aren’t culpable for this, and some regions just do not have the assets to rebuild from severe weather. A body like the Army Corps of Engineers could be sent to rebuild, which would diffuse the responsibility for responding to climate change and improve the lives of millions of people across the world with new infrastructure.

In the face of climate change, policy action is required, but preparing for the worst is a much better option than trying and failing to stop it.