How can we address climate change?
Mitigation vs. Adaptation4
Imagine you’re on a ship that’s sinking because of a leak. If you want to stay afloat, you’ve got to act. The first thing you could do is grab a bucket and pour water out as it gushes through the hull. This response is adaptation — addressing the effect (the water in the boat), but not the cause of the problem (the hole).
In the climate world, the IPCC defines adaptation as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects.” It’s doing what we can to live with and minimize the destruction and suffering that comes from climate change.
Because – to be clear – we have to adapt. To choose just one example, seas are already rising. Now, scientists project that the cities and land currently home to as many as 110 million people could be underwater at high tide by 2050 if current emissions continue.
Failing to adapt to the reality we know is coming (and in many cases, is already here) to prevent widespread misery and death isn’t just irresponsible – it’s criminal. Especially when we know that the worst climate impacts hit poor families and people of color the hardest.
The bottom line is this: We’ve got to build homes and infrastructure that can handle the stronger storms and floods on the horizon. We’ve got to figure out how to feed billions even as global warming slashes farm yields, turns staple crops into junk food, and transforms where we can grow what. And on and on.
Potential climate adaptations span a variety of sectors, from agricultural, to coastal, to urban, and many more. Some strategies include:
Building sea walls, elevating infrastructure, or retreating from low-lying coastal areas altogether. In the U.S., for example, cities like Charleston, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco (to name a few) already have billion-dollar investments planned to protect their sea-bound populations.
Reducing and recycling water use due to drought. For instance, Spain — which has lost 20 percent of its fresh water in just the past 20 years — has made significant changes to its national water policy.
Using prescribed fires to prevent uncontrollable wildfires. Take the Southeastern United States — the region of the country with the highest use of prescribed fires. It’s no surprise this practice is increasing in the region given that by mid-century “NOAA suggests that the risk of very large fire weeks will increase by 300%."
Favoring drought-tolerant crops like rice, cowpea, and maize, just as many African countries have done in response to decreasing rain.
As these examples (and most of human history) show, we’re pretty good at responding to environmental changes when we put our heads to it.
However, we can’t stop there. We can’t adapt our way out of this crisis — especially not with the absolutely unprecedented rate of change we’re seeing now. Truly solving the climate crisis calls for mitigation.
Let’s climb back aboard our sinking ship. If adaptation is pouring water out to stay afloat in the moment, sealing the leak to halt more water coming in is mitigation. In other words, it’s addressing the root cause of the problem rather than dealing with its effects.
In a climate context, as the IPCC describes, mitigation is “human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases."
In practice, mitigation can take a variety of forms, including:
Replacing greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas with clean, renewable energies like solar, wind, and geothermal. With renewables becoming “the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world” in 2019 (compared to in just 1 percent of the world five years ago), this measure has quickly gone from a dream to an everyday reality.
Replacing traditional internal-combustion vehicles with electric options (ideally charged with renewable energy). Just like renewables, electric vehicles are looking better than ever. As Bloomberg NEF describes: “Over 2 million electric vehicles were sold in 2018, up from just a few thousand in 2010.”
Retrofitting old buildings to make them more energy efficient — a fast-growing industry worth $300 billion globally.
Planting trees and preserving forests so they can absorb and store more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Just like the other strategies, in recent years tree planting has seen unprecedented action by governments and private groups alike. In 2017, for example, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh planted 66 million trees in just one day.
The truth is, we’ve reached a point where no single one of these paths will get us to a truly just and livable future.
As the IPCC made clear in a recent report: “Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link mitigation and adaptation.”
The scientists are right — we need all hands (and solutions) on deck. In the case of our sinking ship, we’ve got to both seal the leak and pour water out if we’re going to avoid sinking.
Top-down vs. bottom-up approaches
So, it’s time to take action, but who is responsible to act? In short, we all are. To simplify, action can be taken primarily as a ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ approach, but can also occur anywhere in between.
Top-down sustainability encompasses system-level changes driven by policy and operational directives. These approaches have the potential to create widespread and immediate change when applied effectively, but the time for implementing top-down efforts can be lengthy and political obstacles can be enormous. The number of stakeholders involved in a comprehensive sustainability undertaking is often large and the competing interests are complex; coordinating everyone involved and achieving consensus can be a difficult and sometimes insurmountable challenge.
While top-down approaches force behavior change through policy, bottom-up approaches attempt the opposite: to influence policy through behavior. The appeal of any bottom-up approach is that individual actions can have a massive impact when adopted by large numbers of people, and the barrier to entry is low. An individual behavior change—say, eating less red meat—may have a limited impact if only you and I do it, but has great potential if adopted by many people. This could lead to the entire supply chain needing to rethink their business strategy and innovate to align with changing public behavior and values if they wish to stay profitable.
Because the challenge of climate change requires urgent and immense action to prevent the irreversible damage to the planet in the coming years, everything must change. This means bottom-up, top-down, and approaches from everywhere in between are required.
Real solutions (and where you fit in)
This gets complex and overwhelming very quickly, so let’s try to walk through this together. Mentioned at the beginning of this climate change overview, we looked at human-caused climate change with this statement:
The burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation is the primary source of human-generated emissions. A second major source is deforestation, which releases sequestered carbon into the air. Other human activities that generate air pollution include fertilizer use (a primary source of nitrous oxide emissions), livestock production (cattle, sheep, and goats are major methane emitters), and certain industrial processes that release fluorinated gases (i.e.- refrigerants).
This statement mentions only a few of the many problem areas that must be addressed, but these few are key. Ridding the world of fossil fuels, unsustainable food systems, fluorinated gases for refrigeration, and gender inequality are the most impactful solutions to climate change. Project Drawdown, a team of environmental scientists conducting an ongoing review and analysis of climate solutions have created a list of the top 100 highest-impact solutions to climate change that address the above challenges and more.
Before we talk about how you can help progress these solutions, the video below goes into depth on some of these top solutions by Project Drawdown.
If you enjoyed the video, feel free to check out the other videos by Our Changing Climate on YouTube. It’s one of the most clear, concise, and credible climate change and sustainability channels on YouTube and the incredible graphics make it much more engaging!
To see all of the solutions form Project Drawdown with images, which is always helpful given such technical terminology, and learn more about each one, check out their website: https://drawdown.org/solutions
Project Drawdown has also created a table of solutions to better compare the solutions with most impact. To rank the solutions from most potential impact to least, simply click ‘Scenario 1’ or ‘Scenario 2’ two times to reorder. Drawdown Scenario 1 is roughly in-line with 2˚C temperature rise by 2100, while Drawdown Scenario 2 is roughly in-line with 1.5˚C temperature rise by 2100. Here is the link for the table below: https://drawdown.org/solutions/table-of-solutions