Response to Nature Commentary: Insiders and Outsiders

March 30th, 2007

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Three leaders in the adaptation community submitted a letter to Nature responding to our commentary published last month (here in PDF). Nature won’t be publishing their letter, but we are happy to reproduce it here. Below is the letter and our response to it, followed by a bit more commentary from me.

We take issue with the commentary by Pielke et al. (Nature 445: 597). The authors accuse mitigation advocates of incorrectly arguing that efforts on adaptation detract from mitigation. We agree that the argument is spurious. Yet, the authors make the opposite argument which we also take issue with: that mitigation detracts from adaptation. The notion that the UNFCCC allows investments in adaptation to be reduced by investments in mitigation is unfounded.

Both mitigation and adaptation are needed. Global warming threatens to destabilize ice sheets, causing sea level rise to rise for centuries. It also threatens to cause widespread disruption of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. It is not clear how adaptation will offset these impacts. Thus, mitigation is needed to slow down global warming and avoid its worst effects.

As the authors note, adaptation is also needed because climate change is underway and further warming is inevitable. The climate change adaptation community has long recognized that effective adaptation has to address shortcomings in natural resource management as well as addressing the added risks introduced by climate change. This is not a diversion, but a necessary response to an unprecedented threat facing humanity.

Joel B. Smith
Stratus Consulting Inc.
Boulder, CO USA

Ian Burton
University of Toronto

Saleemul Huq
International Institute for Environment and Development

And here is our response, which we shared with the authors by email:

A criticism from arguably the three leading voices on
adaptation for our not paying sufficient attention to mitigation underscores our point. You letter fails to acknowledge our main point — that two views of adaptation are present in the current discourse. Of course, you are all well aware of this because it is you who has done the most to introduce the broader definition!

The narrow view of adaptation that we describe is indeed linked tightly to mitigation (as for instance reflected in the Stern Report) and does indeed compete with the broader view of adaptation as sustainable development (this tension is reflected in the IPCC reports which use both definitions inconsistently). Some of your own work arguing for the broader definition makes this absolutely clear. Our article was about how these two framings of adaptation compete with one another.

To fail to recognize this distinction is I think to mischaracterize our piece. If every response to advocacy for a greater emphasis on adaptation as sustainable development is countered by a criticism that describes the importance of mitigation, it is fair to ask who is creating the perception of a trade-off.

In response to climate change, we can (and must) do more than one thing at once. But to do so requires that we stop defending mitigation reflexively every time someone makes a strong argument for adaptation. Our piece argued that these agendas should be decoupled which is what the broad definition of adaptation helps to achieve. By not acknowledging this distinction, your letter in response brings them together again and creates ambiguity.

We do appreciate the feedback and it is indeed a sign of progress on this issue if we can begin debating the dimensions of adaptation, rather than if we should be adapting at all.

And I would further point to a recent Pew Center report co-authored by Joel Smith and Ian Burton (PDF) which included the following argument indicating that adaptation is indeed tightly tied to mitigation under the FCCC:

. . . .the adaptation effort has suffered from ambiguities in the [FCCC] regime. One concerns the very definition of adaptation, which is nowhere explicit in the Convention. In that adaptation is referenced only in the context of climate change, the implication is that support under the Convention must be directed to activities addressing primarily if not exclusively human-induced impacts. Yet, as noted earlier, and in expert meetings convened under the Convention, adaptation strategies often are most effective when addressing the full continuum of climate risk. In addition, there appears significant confusion over the terms for adaptation funding through the GEF. As the GEF was established to address global environmental issues, projects supported through its principal trust fund must deliver a “global environmental benefit.” In the area of adaptation, most funding flows through the separate dedicated funds established under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. Although guidance from the parties is not explicit on the point, the GEF’s position is that the “global environmental benefits” test does not apply to these funds. Yet there remains a widespread perception among potential recipients that it does.

This is identical to the argument that we made in the Nature commentary and that I analyze in depth in this paper (in PDF)!

And Saleemul Huq (with Hannah Reid) write:

For example, the six case studies on adaptation to climate change undertaken under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) (see Agrawala, this Bulletin) define adaptation to climate change narrowly so that it refers to only those climate change impacts that are deemed to be directly attributable to human-induced climate change, rather than to adaptation to the broader range of impacts associated with “climate
variability”. A narrow definition of climate impacts would tend to then only produce a small range of adaptation responses as being necessary and hence requiring funding – in essence addressing only a very narrow set of examples of adaptation development linkages (i.e. the “tip of the iceberg” in Figure 2) and hence missing the much larger set of relevant adaptation-development linkages where there are additional co-benefits.

It is difficult for me to see how these perspectives differ at all from our own expressed in Nature as follows:

The focus on mitigation has created policy instruments that are biased against adaptation. Under the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, rich countries pay costs that poor countries incur by adapting to the marginal impacts of climate change — but they can in principle avoid these costs through enhanced mitigation efforts. This provision of the Protocol exemplifies the failure to take adaptation seriously: not only are the funds involved provided on a voluntary basis by rich countries but they are held hostage to mitigation. The logic is that greenhouse-gas reductions will, in turn, reduce marginal adaptation costs. In practice, this means that the UNFCCC will pay “costs that lead to global environmental benefits, but not those that result in local benefits”. To those experiencing devastating losses from
climate impacts in developing countries, such logic must
sound surreal: policy ’success’ means not investing in adaptation
even as climate impacts, driven mainly by non-climate factors, continue to mount.

The only difference that I can see between Smith, Burton, and Huq and Pielke, Prins, Rayner, and Sarewitz is that we are a bit less polite about discussing the big fat elephant in the room. And that just might be attributed to a difference between insiders and outsiders in the FCCC community.

One Response to “Response to Nature Commentary: Insiders and Outsiders”

  1. Paul Higgins Says:

    I wrote a broad overview of society’s options (do nothing, mitigate, build adaptive capacity, geoengineer) for It is available at