By Ross McKitrick
July 6, 2023
Discussion of climate policy is overwhelmingly focused on options for mitigation, or emission reduction, with relatively little attention paid to options for and benefits of adaptation. Proponents of climate policy have long resisted discussing adaptation perhaps out of fear that it might be effective: if through adaptation we can substantially reduce or even eliminate the negative effects of climate change, this will weaken the case for deep decarbonization and elimination of fossil fuels, which some in the climate movement view as an end in itself.
But while adaptation has an excellent record of success, mitigation has proven a costly failure. Despite 30 years of aggressive international mitigation effort, global carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise whereas adaptation efforts have shown considerable success at reducing risks to health and agricultural yields from weather variability. It is, moreover, a long-established view in mainstream climate economics that the primary response to climate change will (and should be) adaptation rather than heroic but prohibitively costly attempts to prevent warming. As the costs of mitigation efforts mount it is necessary for policy-makers to confront the risk that continued attempts at aggressive mitigation policy may in fact impede adaption and increase the harm from future warming.
For example, research has shown that mortality due to heat waves has declined dramatically in the United States since 1960 when households obtained access to air conditioning and low-cost electricity. Policies that drive up the cost of electricity put air conditioning out of the reach of many people, thereby increasing their vulnerability to hot weather.
When it comes to choosing an overall direction in climate policy, priorities must be set, and the record shows that while mitigation is often costly and futile, adaptation is relatively inexpensive and highly effective. It deserves greater focus in climate policy planning.