+1.1°C: that is how much warmer the global temperature is now than it was in the period 1850–1900. It is becoming urgent to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as quickly as possible: this is called mitigation. But the effects of global warming are already here: more frequent floods and heat waves, longer droughts, rising sea levels, etc. Mitigation is essential, but it is not enough.
Another lever is needed: adaptation. Adaptation is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as “the process of adjusting to the current or expected climate and its impacts in order to mitigate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities”. It covers many sectors and activities: for example, in the case of coastal hazards, strategic retreats, dykes, elevated housing and improved drainage can be implemented. For food security, adaptations can include changing the timing or variety of crops, establishing local food chains or adopting vegetarian diets.
Linking politics to climate issues
Scientists have been interested in this issue since the 1990s, and the number of publications on the subject is skyrocketing (+28.5% of publications per year1). Government policies are also addressing the issue. As early as 1992, at the Rio Summit, adaptation and mitigation were mentioned jointly. In 2015, the Paris Agreement set a global adaptation objective, which the European Commission transposed into the Green Pact in 2021. In France, the first national adaptation strategy was adopted in 2006 and now the National Policy for Adaptation to Climate Change (PNACC‑2) is being implemented. The role of the State is key, as Vincent Viguié explains: “it consists in particular of coordinating the parties involved and disseminating the right information”. Jean-Paul Vanderlinden adds: “adaptation concerns everyone. States, associations, citizens, and companies all have a role to play. But responsibility is differentiated: it is important that action does not weaken the groups or reinforce pre-existing inequalities.”
So far, the lack of adaptation is glaring. “Of course, there are measures, such as the PNACC or the PCAET [territorial climate-air-energy plan] in France,” adds Vincent Viguié. “But for the latter, the information on adaptation is very basic!” In France, the High Council for the Climate2 points out the lack of precise guidance in national strategies and plans. The same is true throughout the world according to the UN3. The consequences of this delay? Some systems are already at an impasse. Coral reefs, some tropical forests and many island communities have reached their limits: adaptation will no longer be able to limit the impacts of climate change4. The Global Commission on Adaptation5 estimates that, without adaptation, 500 million small farms will be affected by reduced yields by 2050, 5 billion people will suffer from lack of access to water and 100 million people will fall below the poverty line by 2030 in developed countries.
Mitigation and adaptation, a beneficial combination
Many synergies – more than trade-offs – exist between adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development according to the IPCC. Take the example of building insulation: it improves thermal comfort and moderates the increase in the number of heat waves. It also reduces GHG emissions by limiting the use of air-conditioning, and meets several sustainable development objectives (poverty alleviation, better health and well-being, etc.). “This illustrates the extent to which the climate issue is not isolated and the need to respond to environmental challenges in an integrated manner,” says Jean-Paul Vanderlinden. The implication is that without global thinking, the risks can increase. “In Ho Chi Minh City, the cleaning of canals effectively protects people from flooding,” illustrates Jean-Paul Vanderlinden. “But these are occupied by precarious housing, and the problem of the poverty of these relocated populations may seem to some to be a separate or even secondary issue.”
In many cases, adaptation requires major structural changes: this is called transformational adaptation. It consists of modifying the fundamental characteristics of a system in anticipation of the impact of climate change. Incremental adaptation is based on maintaining the existing system. In the face of rising sea levels, for example, it is possible to build a sea wall to protect coastal populations (incremental adaptation) or implement a strategic retreat programme (transformational adaptation)6. “Incremental adaptation can be useful in the short term, such as the ‘heat wave plans’ deployed following the summer of 2003,” comments Jean-Paul Vanderlinden. But in many cases, transformational adaptation is the only answer to long-term climate issues. The difficulty? Transforming systems requires a high level of support from the public. However, despite the availability of scientific knowledge about the common good, individuals are driven by self-interest: the need to fit in with the values of those around them7. “Moral values slow down the implementation of transformational adaptation,” adds Jean-Paul Vanderlinden.
More funding, better governance
The good news? The effective solutions are well known. But lack of financing is a major problem: public and private financing for fossil fuels is still higher than for mitigation and adaptation8. The majority of climate finance is dedicated to mitigation. Yet the economic benefits are significant: the Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing $1.8 billion between 2020 and 2030 can generate $7.1 billion in benefits. These investments include early warning systems, resilient infrastructure, improved yields in drylands, protection of mangroves and water resilience.
“Finance is a necessary condition, but governance is the major lever,” adds Jean-Paul Vanderlinden. The implementation of deliberative and participative democratic forms is essential. The Citizens’ Climate Convention is a very good example of appropriate governance when it is followed by action. The last major lever pointed out by the IPCC is knowledge. Jean-Paul Vanderlinden continues: “State actors and scientists have a particular responsibility: to identify the climate signal precisely in order to implement the appropriate means for the adaptation process.”
The opposition between mitigation and adaptation is over. “A few years ago, people feared that adaptation would limit mitigation,” recalls Vincent Viguié. “It is now clear that the two processes are complementary.” Especially since mitigation alone is not enough, and some systems are already reaching their limits. The IPCC’s conclusions are clear: “Beyond the limits [of adaptation], only mitigation can [meet these challenges].”