Week in Impact

It’s not mitigation “or” adaptation

September temperatures break records. Melting poles create geopolitical frost. COP 28 accused of conflicts of interest. Plus, is it time to talk about adaptation?

In the world

🗺️ Last month was the hottest September on record by an “extraordinary” 0.5°C, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. The average global temperature reached 1.75°C above pre-industrial levels, exacerbated by both climate change and El Niño. The natural weather pattern is “still developing,” adds the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which means many more months of record-breaking temperatures: a hallmark of June, July, and August. This is now expected to be the warmest year on record (at 1.4°C above pre-industrial levels), prompting the WMO to warn of “cascading [social and environmental] impacts.”

🇦🇶 Some are obvious (heavier precipitation and floods), some more complex — and far-reaching. Take the poles. In Antarctica, ice coverage is at a record low and new flora are blossoming. On the other side of the globe, melting Arctic ice is opening new trade routes (increasingly important as warmer oceans create choppy conditions for existing passages) and opportunities for resource extraction, particularly of rare-earth minerals (increasingly important as the “new industrial revolution” gains steam). Competing economic interests could erupt into military conflict, warned Swiss Re in a recent report, as tensions mount about China-Russia(-India) collaboration on the Polar Silk Road.

🇦🇪Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia will oppose a pre-COP 28 global agreement to phase out fossil fuels. The UAE is taking a different strategic approach — one that would, according to the Financial Times, grant it “a large influence over climate change policy” — in offering to host the 2024 UN climate summit for the second year running. Pope Francis took a swing at the oil state’s “conflicts of interest” in his strongest statement on climate change, warning of irreparable damage to international relations if COP 28 fails. (Spoiler alert: It’s not looking good for loss and damage.) Seeking to counter scepticism, COP 28 chief Sultan al-Jaber has urged oil companies to prepare for a fossil-fuel phase down. 

In the news

Is 1.5°C dead in the water? Back in March, we wrote about its diminishing odds of survival. Last month — which holds the dubious honour of being the hottest September on record — global temperatures soared to 1.75°C above pre-industrial levels. It’s too early to call time on the totemic target, which is, officially speaking, only ‘dead’ when reached and sustained over a multi-decade period. One month (or year, even) isn’t enough evidence for an obituary. Still, it feels like a relevant time to have the conversation. 

The problem is that it’s not an easy conversation to have. From a humanitarian and financial perspective, the cost will be immense. As a result, it’s an eventuality that governments have skirted and economists and investors have underpriced. Now, it turns out that even scientists may be fumbling it.

Last month, climate scientist Patrick Brown posted a Twitter/X thread relaying his experience publishing a paper on wildfire risk. Despite having explored a number of factors relevant to wildfires (land use, forestry, etc.), he describes downplaying their relevance in order to appeal to journal editors and accelerate its publication. The reason? Journalists and publishers prefer papers focused on climate change exclusively. 

Responding in Time, atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel tackles two questions. First: Is it true that narratives of the form “climate change makes X worse,” get more attention than “climate change and a bunch of other factors affect X”? Second: If it is true, why is that the case, and why is it a bad thing?

His conclusion: “Brown’s brouhaha highlights the disconnect between the prerogatives of climate mitigation and climate adaptation.” If mitigation is the issue at hand, in other words, it isn’t misleading but rather responsible to focus on climate change over other factors. The stress should (arguably) be on consequences and accountability. If, however, we’re talking about adaptation, it is both misleading and dangerous to underplay other relevant factors. 

Why? Because no government — or business leader, or investor — can build a defence against the inevitable with only fragments of information. The right approach to adaptation, adds Sobel, is to “try to understand all the relevant factors, including but not limited to climate, and try to define the solutions that lead to the best outcomes for humans and other species.”

“Historically, it’s true that both climate science and the media have been more concerned about mitigation than adaptation. Talking about adaptation used to be seen as giving up on cutting emissions. This was a defensible view back when the impacts of warming were mostly in the hypothetical future. It isn’t any more, because we’re clearly starting to see the impacts now. While most climate professionals understand this, echoes of the anti-adaptation stance do linger.”

The bigger the climate crises, the more damaging scientific and media biases or politicisation becomes. We’re past, or should be past, the point of thinking about mitigation or adaptation in silo. To accept that the climate has already changed and will continue changing is not an environmental betrayal. But refusing to acknowledge our new reality — including the ways in which it intersects with other social, political, and economic realities — may well be a humanitarian one.