Grist: Let's talk About Adaptation

Actually, it’s David Roberts at Grist, and he recommends that adaptation undergo a linguistic makeover to make it more palatable. More on that in a minute.

What’s most notable about Roberts’ post is that he has had a change of heart on an issue that, based on my own anecdotal experience, will be met with growls from some of the hardcore climate advocates in his community. Here’s the admission from Roberts:

Back when I started covering my beat, it was conventional wisdom among greenies that it’s best not to talk too much about adapting to climate change. The worry was that it might lure people into a false sense of security, get them thinking there’s no need to cut emissions since they can adapt to whatever changes come.

I’ve come to think that this is a deeply counterproductive way of looking at things. In fact, adaptation may be the most effective way to approach climate change.

Welcome aboard my lonely train, David. Two years ago, I asked:

Would climate change have greater urgency in the public mind if we started talking more about adaptation?

The silence was deafening. (In fairness, the blog was just getting off the ground and my mother didn’t feel confident enough to speak on behalf of the climate community.)

Since then, I’ve periodically returned to flog the issue that dare not speak its name, with much the same result.

More recently, last month I asked if the climate concerned community was finally ready to have a conversation about adaptation. Based on the heaping scorn vented in the comment thread, I took the answer to be a resounding no.

So it’s a curious thing to see Roberts change his mind at this point in time–or at least go public with it. Part of me wonders if it’s borne out of frustration with the lack of policy and political action. Regardless, Roberts still isn’t fond of the term adaption (too “bloodless”) and recommends replacing it with….get ready for it: ruggedizing.

Yeah, that’s an improvement. If you consider incomprehensible better than “bloodless.” And it rolls off the tongue nicely, heh?

Is this the same guy who coined the clever climate hawk term? Oh well, let’s get ready to ruggggggedize.

20 Responses to “Grist: Let's talk About Adaptation”

  1. lucia says:

    Ruggedizing sounds like some sort of entertainment.  Fun. Enjoyable.  Expensive in an absolutely discretionary way– like build your SUV to drive up to the top of mountains, skiing down and then sending a helicopter to retrieve the vehicle.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Or maybe putting astroturf down in the back of your pick-up, to ruggedize it.

  3. harrywr2 says:

    We can’t talk about adaptation because we don’t have any long term regional forecasting skill.
    Pielke Sr has been talking about the need for regional  skill for a long time.
    Personally I can see huge planning benefits of having informed knowledge of how the climate will trend in a given region over the next few decades.

  4. Sashka says:

    You ought to interpret scorn coming from certain quarters as a praise and visa versa.

    I have no appreciation for the linguistic exercises of this sort. It’s plain old BS, nothing else. Amazingly, he managed to grudgingly accept a sound idea and immediately write a piece full of horse manure. For example:

    You don’t need to know exactly which impacts are attributable to climate change to start talking about ruggedizing, though. You just need a general sense of what your region will face in coming decades. Many of those challenges exist whether or not climate change does; climate change merely accelerates or exacerbates them.

    Notice how the possibility that climate change could alleviate some problems is not even considered.

    Australian floods are assumed to be a result of carbon pollution without a doubt.

    And I just love the part about distributed energy generation. Really, why don’t we have a diesel generator in every basement. That will sure solve a lot of problems, right?

    Weren’t people ruggedizing in the anticipation of the nuclear war just 30 years ago? What’s new and what’s interesting?

  5. John Fleck says:

    David and his climate change communicating chums seem rather like the carpenter who has only a hammer, and for which therefore everything looks like a nail.
    I made the leap to the adaptation problem long ago, simply because I concluded that we were going to be incapable of avoiding greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid big problems, and that understanding how societies might address those coming problems was the central issue.
    What I found (this was something of a “duh”, but it took a while to sink in – I’m slow, I guess) was that societies already face a host of problems related to adapting to rapidly changing environmental and economic conditions, and that a changing climate has no privileged position in this space. Poor farmers go hungry in regular droughts as well as climate change droughts, coastal communities are swamped by ordinary erosion as well as sea level rise erosion, the southwest is running out of water because of population growth and overuse as well as because of climate change-caused reduction in the Colorado River’s flow.
    The people and institutions who/that must deal with these problems are already out there either succeeding or failing in dealing with them, and the discussion isn’t helped much by having a bunch of climate change campaigners descend on the scene.
    A couple of years ago the Colorado River Water Users Association held a session on climate change at their annual meeting featuring Bill Gray and some other prominent climate change skeptics. I wasn’t there, but I’m told their message was well received. And yet Lake Mead is mostly empty, and an argument about climate change seems almost beside the point. Is climate change responsible? If that question distracts us from the problem of figuring out what to do about the fact that the reservoir that supplies Phoenix, Las Vegas and LA is empty, then I’m very much opposed to having a discussion about climate change adaptation. I’d rather talk about what we do about the empty lake.

  6. keith kloor says:

    I too see AGW as part of the broader suite of “rapidly changing environmental and economic conditions” you mention. But as you know, there is this tendency in certain circles to relegate all env problems to second tier status, below AGW. I talked about this tendency here, and I’ve also talked about why I think other slow-moving climate-related disasters, such as drought, deserve to be treated on their accord.
    Alas, the larger climate change debate can be fairly monochromatic, to the detriment of all those problems you listed that require attention.

  7. Francis says:

    John, you’re changing the topic.  One problem is what to do now that the lake is empty.  Another, very different problem is what to do if the lake is never going to refill.  Complex infrastructure takes, in round numbers, 20 years from planning to implementation, at least where California is involved.  If the nice lady who keeps the taps on in Las Vegas wants, for example, to swap CR water for Long Beach desal water and she is willing to pay the cost of expanding the plant, she needs to make up her mind.  Delay is itself a decision.

  8. As I just posted to Grist, you guys are both rather late to the prom on this. Aaron Wildavsky, Indur Goklany, Kendra Okonski, and myself have written about the virtues of adaptation and resilience building for well over a decade. I first wrote about it in 1998 (
    More recently I put forward a market-based approach to building resilience, and fostering adaptation to climate change: (

  9. Sashka says:

    There is no way to know whether the lake will refill. The only possible practical approach is to assume that it won’t. So, what was your point again?

  10. Vinny Burgoo says:

    ‘Mitigation’ is also woefully bloodless. It smacks of wheedling excuses made in court by pasty-faced petty criminals in ill-fitting suits rather than a world-changing revolution in energy and attitudes. (‘Your Honour, my client is a man of good character who fell in with bad company. He was once the very model of a modern metrosexual. He had sworn off the bogroll and disposable nappies and had swapped his car for a rickshaw. He moisturized with olive oil and beeswax. He allowed no one but his cleaning lady to use the lift to his flat. He never bought anything containing chemicals. Then he met Lord Monckton…’) Now that ‘adaptation’ is free, I reckon it should be substituted for ‘mitigation’. Rather than talking about, say, carbon taxes as a mitigation of future threats, we should fess up and promote them as an essential *adaptation* to a changed world in which future threats outrank current misery. We must learn to live for tomorrow and this simple substitution would be an ideal first step.

    Of course, this would leave ‘mitigation’ without a role. Perhaps it could take over from ‘ruggedizing’ (old sense).

  11. John Fleck says:

    Francis –
    But the decision the lady in Las Vegas makes is the same whether the lake is empty because of severe, sustained drought or climate change. And the envelope of uncertainty surrounding the forecasting problem means she’s going to have to make that decision on a time frame that does not allow the luxury of resolving the uncertainties. She faces decisions that require her to build a water system that is robust to a range of possible futures that include irreducible uncertainties (economic, societal, natural variability) of a size that swamp the uncertainties surrounding climate change.
    She’s already *doing* adaptation, and climate change is just one of a bunch of variables she does not control and cannot predict in advance. It doesn’t much change the nature of the problem she faces.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    Kenneth (#8),

    I never said anything in this post about adaptation being a new idea. (Nor did I give that impression.) In all the posts I’ve talked about adaptation my running theme has been: why isn’t adaptation talked about more by Greens and the climate concerned community?

    That’s it.


  13. thingsbreak says:

    Anyone want to pitch me on how Miami is supposed to do adaptation absent mitigation WRT sea level rise? Is it supposed to preemptively adapt to melting the WAIS, EAIS, and GrIS? If not, what’s the upper bound?

  14. Keith –
    I know you didn’t say that it’s a new idea, and neither did Roberts, but it would seem reasonable to mention the idea’s pedigree when explaining its virtues, IMHO.

  15. Sashka says:

    @ 13

    Build dams (or dykes as some prefer it, or levees). With or without mitigation if the alarmists are even half-right the approach is the same. Only the amount of work is different.

  16. kdk33 says:

    Anyone want to pitch me on how Miami is supposed to do adaptation absent mitigation WRT sea level rise?


  17. John Fleck says:

    Keith – Re this comment “there is this tendency in certain circles to relegate all env problems to second tier status, below AGW.”
    The people who actually face the problems of adaptation – people building and maintaining coastal infrastructure or water systems, or farmers – don’t relegate anything. They succeed or fail at dealing with these problems in real time, they live them and work them (or are in denial and put them off and ignore them) all the time. They’re not labeled and thought about as “environmental problems”. They’re just problems.

  18. Keith Kloor says:

    Point taken, John. It’s good for me to be reminded that there’s a real world outside the blogosophere.

  19. Bob Koss says:

    Yeah, coin a new word. Ruggedizing. Then we can keep people in the dark by being nebulous as to its meaning. By the time the ar5 comes out it will mean the same as mitigating.
    I’m actually disappointed the phrase “climate hawk” hasn’t taken off. It really seems rather appropriate. Hawks prey on those weaker than themselves and once they have inserted their talons the prey has little chance of survival.

  20. Francis says:

    JF:  for several years I was told by water engineers in California that the CR system was doing just fine and the drought would break any year now.  Just recently, BoR is now admitting that we may be entering into a completely new water regime.  Unfortunately, we won’t know for oh, about 100 years or so.  And based on what I’ve read, it may never be possible to know for certain what the hydrological regime would have been absent all the extra CO2.
    I suspect we’re vigorously agreeing.  Las Vegas and Arizona (with LA not far behind) are facing very serious problems and they don’t much care about the source of the problem, except to the extent that the answer is no longer to just wait for rain.

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