Lived Experience and Discourses of Mitigation, Adaptation

Fig. 6.1
Pink Campion (Silene dioica) in flower 19 December 2014 after an unseasonally mild autumn and early winter in the United Kingdom. This plant grows wild in several locations, including by the side of the road in many rural areas, as photographed here. It is found throughout northern and central Europe. Its normal flowering season is May to October

In any case, the emphasis in the report was on human adaptation which ‘will be necessary to address impacts resulting from the warming which is already unavoidable due to past emissions’. On this, the 2007 report made some general points, for example (we provide our interpretation and comment—with the benefit of hindsight—in square brackets after each):

  • Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development but is unevenly distributed across and within societies. [Our interpretation and comment: poorer countries and societal groups have less capacity to adapt to climate change than do more affluent countries and societal groups].

  • A wide array of adaptation options is available, but more extensive adaptation than is currently occurring is required to reduce vulnerability to future climate change. There are barriers, limits and costs, and these are not fully understood. [Our interpretation and comment: inadequately understood barriers, limits and costs mean that adaptation at present is primarily a case of muddling through on a case-by-case basis].

  • The array of potential adaptive responses available to human societies is very large, ranging from purely technological (e.g., sea defences), through behavioural (e.g., altered food and recreational choices), to managerial (e.g., altered farm practices) and to policy (e.g., planning regulations). [Our interpretation and comment: we know what we could do if the barriers, limits and costs that were highlighted in the previous bullet point did not exist.]

  • Vulnerable regions face multiple stresses that affect their exposure and sensitivity as well as their capacity to adapt. These stresses arise from, for example, current climate hazards, poverty and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalisation, conflict and incidence of disease such as HIV/AIDS. [Our interpretation and comment: vulnerability has many dimensions and climate change adaptation might seek co-benefits with these other stresses.]

  • The projected number of people affected [adversely by climate change] is considerably greater under the scenarios where development is characterised by relatively low per capita income and larger population growth, than under higher per capita income and lower population growth. This difference is largely explained, not by differences in changes of climate, but by differences in vulnerability. [Our interpretation and comment: ‘low per capita income and larger population growth’ is a popular depiction of low level of development and vice versa for ‘higher per capita income and lower population group’. In other words, development is the best way of achieving adaptive capacity globally.]

6.3.2 Mitigation as Covered by the 2007 Report of WGIII

WGIII defined mitigation as:

An anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. (IPCC 2007a, IPCC 2007b: 53-62).

This 2007 definition of mitigation even more unambiguously reflected the dominant standpoint of physical science in defining climate change. Intervention to reduce the sources was equated with reducing the sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Overwhelmingly this referred to the burning of fossil fuels to release useful energy on which human economic and social life depends. Intervention to enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases meant mostly actions to conserve forests and increase the cover where the processes of photosynthesis would capture carbon dioxide for plant food (see Box 1.1 and associated text in Chap. 1). It also meant grand technological schemes to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it (now known as CCS—Carbon Capture and Storage—see also the 2014 Report analysed below and Chap. 11).

The report claimed that a ‘wide variety of policies and instruments’ is available to incentivise mitigation action. One such was, and remains a favourite option among western governments, to put a price on carbon emissions which would incentivise all economic sectors to innovate into ‘clean’ technologies. It also suggested that co-benefits could be achieved with respiratory health by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and that changes in lifestyle, behaviour patterns and management practices can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors. (Ibid.)

6.4 Adaptation and Mitigation in the 5th Assessment Report (2014)

Fast-forward now to 2014 as this book is being written, where mitigation and adaptation continue to be entrenched within two of the three IPCC working groups (WGII and WGIII) as the two general approaches to responding to the challenge of climate change.

6.4.1 The 2014 WGII Report ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’

Carrying the same title as in 2000 and 2007, WGII describes its brief as follows:

The WGII contribution considers the vulnerability and exposure of human and natural systems, the observed impacts and future risks of climate change, and the potential for and limits to adaptation. The chapters of the report assess risks and opportunities for societies, economies, and ecosystems around the world. (IPCC 2014a)

The report simplifies its definition of adaptation from 2007 to emphasise human systems and actions:

The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects.

The above definition with its emphasis on the human reflects the stronger voice from the social sciences in the 2014 report compared to previous reports. It also introduces two new concepts to its analysis, each further reflecting a robust social science input:

  • Risks (and risk analysis) where the report frames adaptation as a response to the individual and societal risks associated with climate change.

  • Resilience, which it defines as, ‘The capacity of social, economic, and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity, and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning, and transformation’. This somewhat tortuous definition contains two basic ideas about resilience: (i) the capacity to adapt in order to cope with particular events, trends or disturbance at any given point; (ii) the capacity to evolve over time through learning.

We note that O’Brien and O’Keefe (2014) caution against uses of resilience which decontextualise away from socio-economic circumstances of poverty, inequality and vulnerability and call for people-centred, bottom up approaches, linked by social learning. The 2014 WGII report is not, however, unaware of these issues. It re-emphasises the 2007 concern with the ways in which climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors such as poverty, stating: ‘Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, reductions in crop yields, or destruction of homes and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity.’ While noting the predominance of ‘engineered and technological’ options for adaptation, ‘often integrated within existing programs such as disaster risk management and water management’, the report recognises ‘the value of social, institutional, and ecosystem-based measures and of the extent of constraints to adaptation’.

It goes on to claim that ‘Governments at various levels are starting to develop adaptation plans and policies and to integrate climate-change considerations into broader development plans’, and offers five climate-related reasons for concern or key risks (IPCC 2014a: 12) which we present in edited form below. All are stated within the range ‘medium confidence’ to ‘high confidence’ (Box 6.1):


Unique and threatened systems: especially ecosystems and cultures that are already at risk from climate change.



Extreme weather events: such as heat waves, extreme precipitation and coastal flooding.



Distribution of impacts: Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.



Global aggregate impacts on, for example, the Earth’s biodiversity and the overall global economy.



Large-scale singular events: the risk of abrupt and irreversible changes, for example, warm-water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts.


The report then ends with a set of principles for effective adaptation, of which the first five are quoted directly below. All are expressed with ‘high confidence’ except the last which is summarised as ‘robust evidence, high agreement’ (Box 6.1; Ibid: 25, 26):

  • Adaptation is place- and context-specific, with no single approach for reducing risks appropriate across all settings.

  • Adaptation planning and implementation can be enhanced through complementary actions across levels, from individuals to governments. National governments can coordinate adaptation efforts of local and subnational governments, for example by protecting vulnerable groups, by supporting economic diversification, and by providing information, policy and legal frameworks, and financial support. Local government and the private sector are increasingly recognized as critical to progress in adaptation, given their roles in scaling up adaptation of communities, households, and civil society.

  • A first step towards adaptation to future climate change is reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability. Strategies include actions with co-benefits for other objectives. Available strategies and actions can increase resilience across a range of possible future climates while helping to improve human health, livelihoods, social and economic well-being, and environmental quality… Integration of adaptation into planning and decision making can promote synergies with development and disaster risk reduction.

  • Adaptation planning and implementation at all levels of governance are contingent on societal values, objectives, and risk perceptions. Recognition of diverse interests, circumstances, social-cultural contexts, and expectations can benefit decision-making processes. Indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.

  • Decision support is most effective when it is sensitive to context and the diversity of decision types, decision processes, and constituencies Organizations bridging science and decision making, including climate services, play an important role in the communication, transfer, and development of climate-related knowledge, including translation, engagement, and knowledge exchange.

The last two principles that we have quoted are of particular interest to this chapter because they concern knowledge—(i) indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems, and (ii) the process of communicating, transferring and developing climate-related knowledge, which we assume to mean natural and social scientific climate-related knowledge. These two principles also underscore the 2014 report’s concluding words: ‘Underestimating the complexity of adaptation as a social process can create unrealistic expectations about achieving intended adaptation outcomes’.

6.4.2 The 2014 WGIII Report ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’

This is the same title as 2007, but not 2003 when it was simply called ‘Mitigation’. We speculate how much agonising over terminology must occur at IPCC meetings. It is very unlikely that the extra phrase—of climate change—was added without a reason.

The phrase was almost certainly added to clarify that WGIII’s remit is specifically concerned with mitigation of the physical phenomenon that we call anthropogenic climate change. This might seem like a trivial clarification but it’s important here to avoid confusion with other possible uses of the label ‘mitigation’ and to draw a clear dividing line between mitigation and adaptation. For example, much adaptation is intended to reduce the vulnerability of people to climate-related impacts. One could just as easily substitute the word ‘mitigate’ for ‘reduce’. Both words mean ‘lessen’. In other words adaptation may involve mitigation, but not mitigation in the sense that IPCC uses the word.

One has to be clear, therefore, about what one is mitigating and WGIII’s current description does just that. Mitigation aims to address the physical drivers of climate change—global warming that results from increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. As already stated, adaptation aims to address the impacts (especially the human impacts) of climate change, impacts that are currently being felt and their exacerbation into the future.

This clear distinction between mitigation and adaptation has led some climate change campaigners to suggest that the two are in some kind of opposition, and that any emphasis on the latter is simply ‘sticking plaster’ to avoid more fundamental repair associated with the former. Most would concur, however, with the IPCC view that both adaptation and mitigation are necessary and that they are complementary rather than oppositional.

What then, does the 2014 WGIII report have to say about mitigation of climate change? First, its definition is a one-word variation (‘human’ for ‘anthropogenic’) from that used in 2007:

Mitigation is a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. (IPCC 2014b: 4)

The following are some key findings of the WGIII report that are of interest to this book, together with our interpretation and comment on each. They do not, we stress, constitute a comprehensive summary of the group’s report. Six of these findings are stated with ‘high confidence’ and one with ‘medium confidence’. The remaining eight do not state confidence levels although four indicate the quality of the evidence and degree of agreement (Box 6.1). Numbers in brackets refer to the relevant page numbers of IPCC (2014b):

  • Climate change has the characteristics of a collective action problem at the global scale, because most greenhouse gases (GHGs) accumulate over time and mix globally, and emissions by any agent (e.g., individual, community, company, country) affect other agents. International cooperation is therefore required to effectively mitigate GHG emissions and address other climate change issues (5). [Our interpretation and comment: greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do not know the meaning of political or any other human borders. Therefore, we have to act together.]

  • Issues of equity, justice, and fairness arise with respect to mitigation and adaptation. Countries’ past and future contributions to the accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere are different, and countries also face varying challenges and circumstances, and have different capacities to address mitigation and adaptation. The evidence suggests that outcomes seen as equitable can lead to more effective cooperation (5). [Our interpretation and comment: this is a re-statement of a justifiable complaint from developing countries that they are not historically responsible for the current level of greenhouse emissions yet they often bear the negative consequences and are expected to share the costs of mitigation.]

  • Among other methods, economic evaluation is commonly used to inform climate policy design (5). [Our interpretation and comment: ‘It all boils down to the economy, stupid!’. This comment is often heard during national election campaigns in the UK. Economic evaluation will follow the well-worn approach of assigning values to the costs and benefits of proposed mitigation options].

  • Climate policy intersects with other societal goals creating the possibility of co-benefits or adverse side effects. (5). [Our interpretation and comment: co-benefits might include health, new ‘green’ jobs, etc. Adverse side effects might arise because the money spent on mitigation could arguably be put to better use directly on improving health, education, etc.]

  • Without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. (9). [Our interpretation and comment: this is probably true with respect to growth in economic activities. As a corollary to our comment above on the subject of issues of equity, justice and fairness, low- and medium-income countries insist on their ‘right to economic development’ so that they may one day enjoy lifestyles comparable to those in high-income countries. Population growth is more difficult to assess. There used to be a slogan in Bucharest that read, ‘Development is the best contraceptive’ (Hewitt and Smyth 1992: 78). So, while it’s obvious that more people on the planet will want to consume more energy, development presents the best long-term option for reducing the rate of population growth. The rich countries already have more-or-less stable populations.]

  • Mitigation requires at least stabilising greenhouse gas emissions. (10ff). [No further interpretation needed.]

  • Temporary overshoots in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are likely, even with mitigation. They can be addressed through Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) technologies and methods. These include:

    • Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

    • Bioenergy crops which theoretically absorb as much carbon dioxide as they emit when burnt and are therefore classified as ‘carbon neutral’

    • Afforestation (Box 1.1 in Chap. 1).

      Risks are associated with all of these. (13). [Our interpretation and comment: CCS already exists but is far from widespread and hence unproven; bioenergy crops have been criticised for taking up land that could be used for food crops (see below); afforestation could lead to displacement of indigenous groups and their livelihoods.]

  • Estimates of the aggregate economic costs of mitigation vary widely and are highly sensitive to model design and assumptions as well as the specification of scenarios, including the characterization of technologies and the timing of mitigation (15). [Our interpretation and comment: yes, economics is not an exact science. Despite numbers being assigned to costs and benefits, they depend on assumptions rather than value-free calculations. See Chap. 3 and our discussion of the debate that followed the Stern Review ‘The economics of climate change’ that was produced for the UK Government, where Stern’s assumptions about discount rate were challenged.]

  • Mitigation scenarios that limit greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to about 450 or 500 ppm CO2eq1 by 2100 show reduced costs for achieving air quality and energy security objectives, with significant co-benefits for human health, ecosystem impacts, and sufficiency of resources and resilience of the energy system (17). [Our interpretation and comment: 450–500 ppm CO2eq represents the most feasibly achievable concentrations that won’t cause catastrophic disruption (Stern 2010: 39–41). Overall, this point from the WGIII Report adds detail to the co-benefits point above. ‘Energy security objectives’ and ‘resilience of the energy system’ refer to the possibility of countries becoming self-sufficient in their energy needs through developing renewable energy alternatives and no longer needing, for example, to import oil. Thus renewable energy development and national energy security become a win-win and another co-benefit.]

  • Efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes, in order to reduce energy demand compared to baseline scenarios without compromising development, are a key mitigation strategy in scenarios reaching atmospheric CO2eq concentrations of about 450 or 500 ppm by 2100. (21). [Our interpretation and comment: efficiency enhancements and behavioural changes are more easily said than done. The report suffers here from lack of in-depth social science analysis on the feasibility and desirability for different societal groups.]

  • Behaviour, lifestyle and culture have a considerable influence on energy use and associated emissions, with high mitigation potential in some sectors, in particular when complementing technological and structural change. (21). [Our interpretation and comment: again, the implied behavioural, lifestyle and cultural changes are more easily said than done. Our lived experience perspective in Sect. 6.5 will highlight the issues.]

  • Regional differences influence the choice of transport mitigation options. Institutional, legal, financial and cultural barriers constrain low-carbon technology uptake and behavioural change. Established infrastructure may limit the options for modal shift and lead to a greater reliance on advanced vehicle technologies; a slowing of growth in light-duty vehicle demand is already evident in some OECD countries. For all economies, especially those with high rates of urban growth, investment in public transport systems and low-carbon infrastructure can avoid lock-into carbon intensive modes. Prioritizing infrastructure for pedestrians and integrating non-motorized and transit services can create economic and social co-benefits in all regions (23). [Our interpretation and comment: in high-income economies, radical shifts towards lessening dependence on private motor cars depend on behavioural and possibly lifestyle changes which are difficult to achieve. This is despite public transport systems functioning in these economies. High urban population growth in developing economies seems to swamp attempts to create public transport infrastructure and institutional capacity is often generally lacking.]

  • Lifestyle, culture and behaviour significantly influence energy consumption in buildings For developed countries, scenarios indicate that lifestyle and behavioural changes could reduce energy demand by up to 20 % in the short term and by up to 50 % of present levels by mid-century. In developing countries, integrating elements of traditional lifestyles into building practices and architecture could facilitate the provision of high levels of energy services with much lower energy inputs than baseline. (24). [Our interpretation and comment: see above concerning the challenges of lifestyle and behavioural changes in developed/rich/high-income countries. Meanwhile, the possibilities offered for developing countries are no more than aspirational, with no analysis of how they might be achieved.]

  • Bioenergy can play a critical role for mitigation, but there are issues to consider, such as the sustainability of practices and the efficiency of bioenergy systems. Barriers to large-scale deployment of bioenergy include concerns about GHG emissions from land, food security, water resources, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. The scientific debate about the overall climate impact related to land-use competition effects of specific bioenergy pathways remains unresolved. (26) [Our interpretation and comment: see our previous comment on bioenergy under the ‘Temporary overshoots’ bullet point. To illustrate, Toulmin (2009: 134) reports how thousands of small-scale rice farmers face eviction in the Wami of Tanzania which has been earmarked for sugar cane as a bioenergy crop].

  • The largest mitigation opportunities with respect to human settlements are in rapidly urbanizing areas where urban form and infrastructure are not locked in, but where there are often limited governance, technical, financial, and institutional capacities. The bulk of urban growth is expected in small- to medium-size cities in developing countries. The feasibility of spatial planning instruments for climate change mitigation is highly dependent on a city’s financial and governance capability. (27) [Our interpretation and comment: Yes, this reinforces our comment about transport systems in rapidly urbanising areas above. The governance, technical, financial and institutional capacities represent formidable challenges. Toulmin (2009: 108), for example, warns of the danger and costs of assuming that actions can be grafted onto a network of existing infrastructure which does not exist in many African countries.]
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