Adapt or disappear, the true climate dilemma

Tourists try to stay dry in a flooded St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. (Credit: Jonathan Ford/Unsplash)

I remember the day our editor-in-chief Serge Michel suggested we produce a series on climate change.  In the summer of 2021, climate disasters (floods, forest fires, heat waves, etc.) were making headlines both South and North – including in Europe. Serge wanted us to focus on solutions, including low-tech ones, developed to deal with the climate challenge. . The title of the resulting series, “What to do as a last resort if the climate turns into a catastrophe?”, was, as per tradition, debated internally.

My view was that the key term was adaptation to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines it as “the process of adjusting to current or expected climate and its consequences”. The word was not used in our title readability reasons, but it will dominate the news from Monday 28 February as it is at the heart of the IPCC’s latest work. Its report, due to be released at 12pm, is a continuation of its sixth assessment, the first part of which was published last August.

Adapt or die

While anecdotal, the discussions about the title of our series reveals two things.First, the term adaptation seems to be misunderstood – probably because it is also used in evolutionary biology to describe the way in which living organisms adjust to their environment. In this context, it is readily associated with something slow and automatic. On the other hand, when applied to climate change, it means painstaking anticipation is required to reduce the vulnerability of natural systems and our societies as much as possible, without which climate disasters expose us to ever more crises and human tragedies. However, in both cases it is a question of adapting or risking death.

It also shows that adaptation, while absolutely necessary, cannot only be a last resort. The problem at source must also be addressed through what is known as mitigation, or limiting the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to a level that no longer disturbs the global climate. To this end, we must become carbon neutral and stop adding more GHGs to the atmosphere. The IPCC will be devoting the third and final part of its assessment cycle to mitigation, and will deliver its results in just over a month. It will focus in particular on the role of carbon storage technologies as well as the changes our societies can make to limit energy demand.

Recognising our vulnerabilities

For a long time, developed countries – the main culprits of climate change – were tempted to believe that they would escape climate impacts, that heat waves, droughts and floods would only affect the countries of the South. This is not the case, according to the IPCC's report from August 2021.

Rising temperatures are increasing the severity, duration and frequency of extreme weather events worldwide. With a 1.5°C increase in global temperatures, heat waves, for instance, will be 2°C warmer and four times more frequent... Each additional degree exposes us to 7 per cent more precipitation globally, the report recalled. But this precipitation is not distributed equally: it increases in high latitudes, particularly in the northern hemisphere, and decreases in the subtropics. The result? Droughts for some, floods for others. The new report should provide an accurate atlas of these new risks – especially for our agricultural systems and drinking water supply.


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