Climate Change: Adapt Or Mitigate?


Along the Sonoma County coast, CalTrans is relocating a stretch of Highway 1 farther inland in response to the ocean taking out about a foot per year of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. This concept is often referred to as managed retreat, where entire communities and neighborhoods are forced to deviate from decades of coastal development due to climate change.

It’s also what humanity has been doing throughout its history: adapting to change.

In the end, it doesn’t matter why the climate changes. What does matter is how humans deal with the changes. Adaptation is a better option than mitigation.

By mitigation, we mean legislative proposals such as the Green New Deal, as well as the many California climate policies, that are intended to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of these centrally planned “solutions” are always steep. According to the Heartland Institute’s H. Sterling Burnett, global spending on mitigation has reached about $1.7 billion a day in recent years, which is only a fraction of what many politicians and activists want to spend. Even so, there are no guarantees that cutting GHG emissions, even sharply, and unrestrained spending, will affect Earth’s temperature.

Adaptation, however, is a market-based response to a real threat. Humans are capable of adapting to climate change “by reducing their vulnerability to its impacts,” says the ​​National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Examples of adaptation include “moving to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, planting new crops that will thrive under new climate conditions, … using new building technologies,” and building sea walls.

Focusing on the latter is far more productive “than spending vast sums on mitigation no matter what you believe about the causes of climate change,” says Tom Harris, executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition. Yes, the costs of adaptation are likely to be high, but they’ll be less expensive than efforts to block climate events from happening in the first place, says Harris.

Don’t discount the importance of a more affordable alternative. If we are to adapt, the economy has to thrive. Handcuffing growth with big government programs is counterproductive.

Adaptation is also a local matter, meaning that projects are tailored to need, and the costs are not as widely socialized as they are for funding mitigation. Furthermore, it is less heavy-handed. Government mandates force an entire state or even country into electric cars, outlaw natural gas connections in homes and businesses, tax carbon, or replace fossil fuels with unreliable renewable energy sources when adaptation could produce more positive results.

Communities have the capability to adjust to Earth’s ever-shifting environment. Humans just might be the most adaptive of all species, says Scientific American. This “ability not only allowed our progenitors to ride the massive seesaws of climate shifts but subsequently helped them to colonize new habitats.” Smithsonian Magazine says man’s “adaptability might be THE defining characteristic of our broader genus.” Early humans’ capacity for handling “wild climate fluctuations likely enabled them to diversify, differentiate, and spread out of Africa 1.85 million years ago.”

Adaptation, however, is incompatible with the left’s agenda, which regards mitigation as more of a portfolio of economic policies than an environmental remedy. As are so many other good ideas, it’s a victim of bad politics.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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