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Adaptation has nothing to do with saving the planet?

April 22, 2010

Ok, for a moment let’s leave aside the naivete of a phrase like “save the planet,” and just accept that it’s a reference to encouraging a healthy environment and reversing negative impacts of things like climate change. Now we can deal with the other problem I have with the title of this post: the idea that adaptation is capitulation. For people like Slate writer Felix Salmon, adaptation is apparently what’s left when we give up on mitigation: a pathetic attempt to live in a compromised world.

Salmon has a written a very interesting article, which describes the depressing lack of incentives for the business world to be proactive in dealing with the effects of climate change. He rightly points out that the models can’t give very specific or certain information about coming impacts. And some of the likely impacts are things that companies can’t do much about anyway. These are all good points.

But I take issue with Salmon’s statement about the PR value of adaptation (my emphasis):

Adaptation strategies have essentially zero PR value. They have nothing to do with saving the planet. Instead, they’re all about trying to thrive if and when the planet starts to fall apart. That’s not something any savvy company wants to trumpet to the world.

Au contraire, I would say that adaptation is precisely about saving the planet, if by planet you mean humans and the environment. Adaptation is all about finding ways to deal with pervasive, inevitable, uncertain change. “Saving the planet” (again, suspend disbelief) absolutely requires that we figure this out, whether you’re worried about overpopulation, climate change, disease pandemics, or robot armies a la Terminator.

It may be true that adaptation efforts have less PR value than do mitigation efforts. However, I’m sure that investors would be quite pleased to see a company taking action on long term changes that will likely affect the bottom line.

If you spin adaptation as profiting from a horrible environmental disaster, then yes, it looks bad. But if you say you’re building strong communities in the face of uncertainty, then you’re green-washing with the best of ’em.

Cynical green washing or not, we need to get beyond this idea that adaptation is a “turn tail and run” response to climate change. It’s every bit a “stay and fight” response as emissions reduction.

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