Presidential science advisor John Holdren is fond of saying that there are only three possible responses to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. We'll prevent what we can, adjust to what we can't prevent, and suffer through what we can't adjust to. All that remains is to determine the proportions.
Lots of people are averse to large-scale suffering. But lots of people are also averse to substantial mitigation measures. This leaves them placing a great deal of faith in adaptation. Just based on conversations I've had over the years, I think there are lots of people who are vaguely aware of climate change, convinced that something is really happening, but who have a kind of free-floating confidence in human beings' ability to adjust to circumstances. Adjusting is what we do -- humans live in just about every kind of microclimate the planet offers, after all. If climate zones shift or move around, we'll get used to it. Why break the bank trying to prevent something that we can just learn to live with?
Now, on the merits, this is crazy. Our best understanding is that preventing (mitigating) a degree of global temperature rise is much, much cheaper than adapting to it. Compared to adaptation, mitigation is a huge bargain, whether you're measuring by money, time, disruption, ecosystem integrity, whatever.
But still, people have an extremely deep-seated faith in adaptation. What's odd is that, as much as we talk about it, as much as we trust in it, we don't have a very good understanding of its dynamics or its limits. It remains, in popular discussions of climate policy, a kind of unexamined deus ex machina.
A new commentary in Nature Climate Change attempts to move the ball forward a little by offering an analytical framework for thinking about adaption. The key insight is that human adaptation is an intrinsically social process, so the most salient limits on adaptation may be social rather than biophysical or economic. However, the authors note ...