There are two sides to the climate action coin: adaptation (dealing with the impacts of climate change) and mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). While working hard to reduce our emissions can help us avoid unmanageable situations in the future, equally strong efforts to adapt will help us manage the unavoidable impacts we’re currently facing and will continue to face.
You would be forgiven for not knowing much about adaptation, because we just don’t talk about it (except after a major disaster, like the Fort McMurray fires or Hurricane Sandy). The public discourse around climate change usually goes like this: Climate change impacts are already happening, so we need to reduce our emissions. There’s an immediate leap from impacts to mitigation, with no talk of adaptation. Why? Partly, I think it’s because talking about adaptation feels like an admission of defeat—as if our efforts to reduce emissions have failed and any further attempts will be futile. But I think it’s also because, on the whole, adaptation is a bit of a snoozefest (at least comparatively speaking). At its essence, adaptation is about common sense and making good decisions, and that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grab headlines. Solving problems before they occur—proactive adaptation—is boring. But it is smart.
In contrast, mitigation is easier to sell to the public. We talk about carbon taxes and windmills and electric cars. We talk about targets for 2020 and 2050 and how we’re going to get there. Capturing the public’s imagination with adaptation is much more challenging. There are no targets, no clear end point. It’s a process and, while it’s not exactly sexy, it’s just as important and urgent as mitigation. No matter how much we reduce our emissions—even if we manage to be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative—there will still be impacts. That’s because there’s a lag in the climate system; the impacts we’re experiencing today are a result of the emissions of past decades, and these impacts are projected to become more severe (because emissions over the last few decades have skyrocketed). Impacts are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, so we’d best get to adapting.
What, exactly, does adaptation look like? Well, to start, it’s more of a journey than a destination, and the path travelled will look different for every community because the impacts vary across space and time. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building resilience in our homes, communities, businesses, and landscapes. There’s a tendency—when we actually do talk about adaptation and climate resilience—to only talk about infrastructure solutions, like bigger stormwater pipes, new permanent roads to substitute ice roads lost due to warming temperatures, and seawalls to deal with sea-level rise and storm surge. And I get it. Infrastructure is concrete (no pun intended). It’s easy to wrap your head around and easy to throw money at. But adaptation is about more than that; it’s about how we build healthy, liveable, resilient communities in every sense.
So how else can we build resilience? Well, homeowners can create rain gardens to soak up more intense downpours (so that the water neither floods their basements, nor overwhelms the city’s stormwater system). Farmers can plant crop varieties that are better suited to our new normal (e.g., can better cope with drought). Cities can keep public pools open longer, operate cooling centres, and put in place heat alert systems to warn citizens and help them cope during more frequent and severe heat waves. And provinces can work to preserve our natural assets, like wetlands, that buffer us from climate impacts like flooding and drought.
One of the best ways to ensure we’re adapting is to integrate climate change considerations (temperature increases, changes in precipitation, increased risk of drought, flood, or wildfire, the arrival of new pests and diseases, etc.) into every decision we make. That means taking climate change into consideration when we’re planning our transportation systems, when we’re establishing our parks and protected areas, when we’re figuring out how to manage our water resources, when we’re managing and expanding our healthcare system, and on and on. This kind of work often goes unrecognized—there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for incorporating climate considerations—but it is fundamentally important.
So now that you know a bit about adaptation, what is it about this mosaic that speaks to the relationship between adaptation and mitigation? Well, it’s subtle, but if you look closely you’ll see that the left-hand side of the mosaic (the adaptation half) was made with only the rough faces of the marble, while the right-hand side (the mitigation half) was made with the polished face of the same kinds of marble. Two sides of the same
coin stone. The choice of rough side for adaptation and shiny side for mitigation was very deliberate: shiny for mitigation because that’s what grabs our attention, rough for adaptation because it’s humble and ordinary, but oh-so-interesting and full of possibilities when you look closer.
When I first came up with the concept for this mosaic, I thought the difference between the two halves would be more apparent. But it actually makes sense that it is so subtle and that there is also some blurring between the two sides, in that some of the polished faces are quite matte and blend in with the adaptation half, while some of the cut faces of the adaptation half are so cleanly cleaved that they look almost polished. And this blurring also happens in real life. There are actions that both increase your resilience and reduce emissions; climate twofers, if you will. Things like increasing the energy efficiency of homes, or expanding our urban forests. It’s easy to see how these actions reduce emissions, but how do they help us adapt? Well, more energy efficient homes put less strain on the grid during heat waves (which will become more frequent and intense) when everyone has their air conditioners going full blast, and urban forests, in addition to acting as carbon sinks, can also cool our cities and soak up water from extreme downpours.
I have also deliberately left the strike marks on the marble where it didn’t break with the first hit of the hammer, just as a reminder that we’re in uncharted territory in terms of dealing with climate change, and we’re going to have to do a lot of experimenting and learning by doing. While it will be important to talk about our successes so that others can take them and replicate them and scale them up, we also need to be open about our failures and learn from them (to “fail forward”).
And there you have it. My mosaic plea to not forget about adaptation; my attempt to give it the space it deserves alongside mitigation. So, my friends, go forth and adapt and mitigate.
Final word: When I started this mosaic, I had no idea that I would be leaving my job to move home to Kitchener-Waterloo. While the move is a very good thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss my job and, more specifically, my adaptation colleagues (affectionately known as the A-Team). These guys are fun beyond belief, they always have your back, and they are really really good at what they do. I know I’ve learned a tonne in the short time I’ve worked with them and am a better policy analyst for it. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the last climate change mosaic I make while still gainfully employed (with the federal government, anyway) is about the file that I work on. So this one is dedicated to the A-Team, the best colleagues a gal could ever ask for.