Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project


Download a PDF of the report here. 

Even as adaptation has more recently gained mainstream acceptance as an unavoidable response to rising global temperatures, it continues to be a sideshow to the main event of limiting greenhouse gas emissions through international climate negotiations. This misses enormous opportunities for effective action to reduce human suffering due to climate and weather disasters, and to lay a stable foundation for cooperative international efforts to address both climate adaptation and mitigation.

With global population growth, more accumulated wealth, and other socioeconomic changes, the number of people and amount of property exposed to and thus potentially vulnerable to climate risk will continue to increase, regardless of anthropogenic climate change and how well (or poorly) we address it. Societies can do a much better job in maximizing their resilience to climate-related risks.

With this in mind, we propose, as an animating goal for an adaptation agenda, the progressive and continual reduction of average number of deaths each year from natural disasters, including those disasters that will be exacerbated by a changing climate. With an agenda for action that is attentive to peoples’ well-being, equity, and livelihoods, adaptation policies focus on opportunity rather than cost, promising benefits that are near-term and certain.

To bring adaptation to the fore, we emphasize two strategies. The first is to adopt progressive and decisive reductions in loss of life from disasters worldwide as a direct measure of adaptive success. The empowering lessons of regions as socioeconomically distinct as eastern India and the Netherlands show that such a goal can be within reach for all nations and people. The second strategy is to put adaptation at the center of the climate change policy agenda, along with energy access and innovation. “Low-regret” and “win-win” efforts to directly improve peoples’ lives while supporting mitigation efforts offer attainable objectives for creating a more prosperous and resilient world that resonates with a diversity of values and worldviews.

Success in preserving human life in an often-capricious and frequently harsh environment is the result of innovative adaptations. Far from being a new activity undertaken in response to anthropogenic climate change, humans excel at the kinds of innovation-led adaptation which have lessened vulnerability to climatic and other challenges, and allowed humans to flourish in an incredibly diversity of climates.

We look at innovative adaptations that address challenges including food security, rising sea levels, and public health, in places as different as Nepal, the Netherlands, and inner- city Chicago. Two key lessons emerge from these examples:

  1. To adapt for rising exposure to climate change, innovate toward a range of possible futures: Dealing with uncertainty requires flexibility and foresight to keep pathways open.

  2. High-energy adaptation means reduced vulnerability: Reducing vulnerability to natural disasters depends on prioritizing socioeconomic development through modernized energy systems and other pragmatic initiatives. Successful adaptation will occur only on a high-energy planet.

In the following report, we evaluate opportunities to increase climate resilience through standard concepts used broadly to assess and mitigate risk; consider successful adaptations in a variety of different global contexts in search of key lessons for international climate adaptation; and consider what an alternative climate adaptation framework that takes adaptation as its primary objective might look like.

Download a PDF of the report here.