Tag Archives: mitigation

Is Mitigation beginning to enter the Resilience conversation?

I started writing this blog because I noticed mitigation is conspicuously hard to find when reading about resilience. Climate change resilience is often used in tandem and sometimes interchangeably with the term ‘adaptation’. Examples of climate change resilience here, here and here, highlight that the roots of resilience to climate change stem from disaster risk reduction, ecology and sociology and usually suggest a concept of “bouncing back” or “recovery” from some shock or stress. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Working Group (WG) II Contribution to its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), defined resilience as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity of self-organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change.” This definition raises the question: why is a strategy (i.e. mitigation) that seeks to reduce the “stress” of greenhouse gases on the earth’s atmosphere not considered a form of resilience?

Is the reason mitigation has not emerged a popular strategy for building climate change resilience because the earth has not been able to retain its basic structure and function in absorbing greenhouse gases and so can basically never “bounce back” or “return to a former state”(based on the IPCC WG II AR4 definition of resilience)?   Or perhaps because resilience has been a more popular term in the disaster risk reduction sector (which is characterized by more violent and extreme events), resilience has come to be framed more normatively in relation to the immediate and extreme impacts of climate change. Is this framing, the reason resilience is commonly applied in light of adaptation alone – as adaptation is a more immediate actionable strategy than mitigation? If so, within climate change issues which suffer from the back burner-effect already (see this blog post), mitigation then becomes the action that gets relegated to the background.

My problem with mitigation not being integral to the definition of climate change resilience, is that language matters. Since the concept of mitigation is not apparent in a number of definitions and conceptualizations of climate change resilience, it seems that so far, mitigation actions are being entirely left out of some of the efforts to build resilience to climate change. Nevertheless, the IPCC in the SPM of its Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation stated that “…adaptation and mitigation can (emphasis mine) complement each other and together can significantly reduce the risks of climate change.” Can? I would like to think should! Granted, mitigation was not the focus of the report (as the authors so graciously point out) but the example advances the notion that mitigation has not necessarily been viewed by scholars and practitioners as an ultimate compliment to adaptation efforts in building resilience to climate change.

However there appears to be hope. In the most recent IPCC Assessment Report (AR5), the WG II Contribution in its SPM discusses the concept of climate-resilient pathways, which it defines as “sustainable-development trajectories that combine adaptation and mitigation to reduce climate change and its impacts.” Could a concept described as resilient that combines both adaptation and mitigation be an indication that mitigation is beginning to enter the conversation about resilience? I would like to think yes!

The Back Burner Effect

The majority of my time is spent thinking, reading, or writing about environmental issues – usually as they relate to disasters and conflict. The problems are daunting and the solutions are evasive. The nailing-Jell-O-to-the-wall cliché comes to mind. This post introduces what I believe to be one of the most salient and complex challenges facing the conservation sector: ‘the back burner effect.’ In essence, most environmental problems are inherently long-term, but people think and act in the short-term; as a result conservation efforts get perpetually pushed to the back burner (if even on the stove). The paradox, though, is that ignoring the global environment often comes at the long-term peril of the very issues we prioritize in the short-term.

The question, then, is how can the conservation community gain traction on the inherently long-term despite the intractable, inevitable, and legitimate issues that exist – and will always exist – in the short-term?

Spoiler alert: I’m not sure, it’ll be messy, and we’re trying.

The back burner effect, climate change, and Keystone XL

Climate change provides a contextual example (ignore for the moment the extremely sophisticated misinformation campaign. That post will come and will likely contain the adjective ‘treasonous’). In its simplest form, the lack of progress on meaningful climate action can be boiled down to the following, all of which link to the back burner effect:

  • Climate change is a global problem that is worsened by nearly all people, albeit some more than others. Shared resources in ungoverned spaces such as the atmosphere tend to fare poorly (enter Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons – see global fishery stocks);
  • The effects of climate change are insidious in that they are gradual and non-linear; and
  • Climate change exists principally as it affects other systems (i.e., climate change is a stressor, and not a sector unto itself)

The above points are why so many environmental organizations have galvanized around Keystone XL. The pipeline is a physical manifestation – something to point to and rally behind (this has been discussed here and here amongst other places). However, even if President Obama rejects the pipeline (a decision I fully support), then what? At best, we ducked Mother Nature’s right cross, but her left hook is still coming (or, depending on who you ask, a glancing jab). As are the flurry of body shots.  And last I checked, the 7 billion of us are propped up against the ropes with our hands down – hence the importance of climate adaptation and resiliency efforts.

But what has been lost in the discourse surrounding all things Keystone is that with or without it, we will continue to spew carbon-based gasses into the atmosphere – all in the name of front burner priorities. That is not to discount the work surrounding the pipeline, or the bravery of those who engaged in civil disobedience this weekend, just to outwardly acknowledge that what we need to change does not lend itself to focused protests.  Moreover a ‘win’ in Keystone is almost like a carbon-based slight of hand – misdirection from the unrelenting yet hard-to-define social, economic, and political factors that steadily drive environmental degradation as well as the associated policy interventions that sit stubbornly on the back burner.

Enter ‘there’s still hope’ section here

There’s still hope.  No, really there is.  But the question remains: Without clear focusing events (e.g., the Cuyahoga River Fire), and with so many other ostensibly-more-pressing issues, how can the environmental sector grab people’s and governments’ attention for long enough to advance their/our [critical to humanity’s existence] agenda? It’s a dicey and frightening quandary representative of challenges of the back burner effect and one, I’d argue, that needs far more outward reflection by the conservation sector.