The UN's new focus: Surviving, not stopping, climate change

Adaptation hasn’t received nearly as much attention on the international level as mitigation has, though that could change with this latest UN report. But on the national level, where much of the action on climate change has shifted amid international gridlock, adaptation-focused thinking is becoming more common. According to a recent study by Globe International, which tracked climate legislation across 66 countries, the number of national climate laws around the world has increased from 40 in 1997 to nearly 500 now. Some of these laws are mitigation-focused, like Switzerland’s aggressive carbon-dioxide-reduction act, but overall the “momentum in climate change legislation [is] shifting from industrialised countries to developing countries and emerging markets,” which “has gone hand in hand with a rise in legislation covering adaptation.”
This shift is a positive development for two reasons. First, adaptation measures are less politicized than mitigation measures. People may not agree on the science of climate change, but uncertainty about the future is no excuse for failing to prepare for the worst. “The dam of orthodoxy is cracking,” Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian on Monday. “If Rome is burning, there is no point in endlessly retuning Nero’s fiddle.”

Second, preparing for the worst actually presents major opportunities for the private sector and local governments. In its report this week, the IPCC is indeed calling for action—but not in the form of grand international declarations or promises. “Among the many actors and roles associated with successful adaptation, the evidence increasingly suggests two to be critical to progress; namely those associated with local government and those with the private sector,” the report states. The implicit message: Citizens should stop waiting for world leaders to legislate climate change away—because that can’t be done. Instead, individuals and communities need to show entrepreneurial initiative and figure out how best to survive in an increasingly volatile climate.