Adaptation: the coming of age of a realistic approach to climate change

By Herman Kasper Gilissen

HKSince the seventies of the previous century there has been a vivid international scientific debate on climate change. As time progressed, this debate became more and more political. During the 1988 Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto – which was attended by both scientists and state representatives – it was solemnly declared that the global emission of greenhouse gasses should strongly (i.e. 20%) be reduced by 2005. Furthermore, the attendees stressed the need for a legally binding international agreement to achieve these goals (Jäger 1992). Thus, the focus of the international climate debate was set: climate change was declared a ‘common concern of human kind’, and a strong belief struck root this threat could only be repelled by mitigation measures. The malleability of the global climate – which can be viewed as a characteristic of the positive spirit of the nineties – became the starting point of negations on the conclusion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Bodansky 1993). This makes clear that during the early stages of the climate debate the so-called ‘limitationist approach’ became prevalent; adaptation to climate change was generally viewed as a fatalistic, obstructionist, lazy, arrogant and anti-environmental approach (Pielke 1998).

Indeed, the early ‘adaptationist approach’ actually asked for antipathy, as it factually proclaimed a passive attitude towards climate change by putting trust into the ‘invisible hands’ of natural selection and market forces: adaptation would take place of itself without any human intervention. However, this approach gained increasing support, the more the feasibility of achieving global success with mitigation measures got questioned. Despite the fact that the UNFCCC and eventually the Kyoto Protocol got concluded, the results of both mitigation action and the subsequent Conferences of the Parties to the Convention year by year became more disappointing (Bodansky 2010). This seemed to be fertile soil for the adaptationist approach to conceptually evolve into a more active approach, proclaiming adaptation measures to be taken by human hands (Schipper 2004, 2006), or with Nordhaus (1994): “Mitigate we might; adapt we must!”. So after a quite long period of aversion, the adaptationist approach during the mid-nineties caught tailwind to be generally accepted as a necessary reaction to climate change by the beginning of the new millennium, explicitly in addition to mitigation (IPCC 2001). In the course of the first decade of this century, adaptation and mitigation were viewed as complementary approaches with promising synergetic effects, if ‘optimally mixed’. This came to be known as the ‘realistic approach’ to climate change (IPCC 2007).

The birth of this realistic approach, however, seems not to be the final stage in the coming of age of the adaptationist approach, as in its latest report (2014) the IPCC even put a stronger focus on adaptation. Not to say the limitationist approach formally got rejected, this might be interpreted as early signs of total despair, resulting in an even more realistic approach: “Keep calm and ADAPT NOW!”. Yet, in my opinion, it is hard to disagree: why rely this much on the uncertain and unpredictable long-term effects of mitigation, if there already seems to be so much at stake, for instance with regard to flood risks? I would be rather safe than sorry, also when it comes to liability or other compensation issues (Gilissen 2013). As long as there is no certain and convincing proof of the limitationist approach being effective, we should adopt a more realistic attitude towards mitigation, as until so far it mostly proved to hamper and not to help.

Instead, we should embrace adaptation as the main strategy in combatting the adverse effects of climate change, while debating mitigation issues on a parallel track. That is why I applaud all efforts towards drafting feasible, coherent and integral adaptation policy frameworks at all institutional levels, including those concerning financial and other support from developed and strongly developing countries to the less and least developed ones. Common but differentiated responsibilities should be emphasized even more within the adaptation debate. Moreover, there should be a strong and steady focus on research into and development of effective techniques and strategies for the prevention, control and reduction of worldwide climate change impacts, and best adaptation practices should be highlighted. In that respect, the STAR-FLOOD project makes an important contribution to the debate on (climate driven) flood risks. So, in conclusion, I stress again that we should first of all adapt, especially in a time the limitationist approach one way or the other has to solve its internal tensions and, moreover, has yet to prove its effectiveness.


Gilissen works as a researcher at the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law. In November 2013, he defended a thesis on adaptation to climate change within the Dutch water management sector. Nowadays, he is involved in several research projects concerning adaptation to climate change and flood risk management, among which the STAR-FLOOD project. He is also involved in academic courses on environmental/water law and policy.           



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