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The Language of Climate Change

Mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

The climate community has a problem with language. Its leaders use specific terms in non-specific ways and, by doing so, unintentionally lock themselves into rigid courses of action.

A recent study defined three core responses to climate change — mitigation, adaptation, and resilience — and explored how city leaders in the UK use them.

  • Mitigation is an effort to control the human sources of climate change and their impacts.
  • Adaptation is a set of adjustments that reduce society's vulnerability to climate risk.
  • Resilience is a system's capacity to withstand disruptive climate events and its speed and flexibility in response.

In plain terms, mitigation reduces further climate change; adaptation limits society's vulnerability to it; and resilience increases society's capacity to respond to it.

These similar-but-distinct terms inform how leaders develop policies, allocate resources, and organize coalitions. The study's most interesting finding is the psychology behind the terms.

Even when it is not accurate, leaders overemphasize resilience because they are comfortable with the word. They use it in non-climate contexts such as sports and business. And since it is an admirable trait — be resilient, we are told — "people resonate with the word resilience because they understand it probably from a personal capacity."

But climate wordsmithing has consequences. By emphasizing resilience rather than adaptation or mitigation, city leaders may unintentionally de-prioritize the critical work of slowing climate change and reducing society’s vulnerability to it. The authors call this the "Resilience Trap."

It's worth contrasting climate's control-adjust-withstand dynamic to the systems that were developed to manage another existential threat, nuclear weapons.

After the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as nuclear states, the post-World War II global order was primarily built upon the foundation of adaptation — reducing society’s risk from nuclear weapons. Since 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has sought to mitigate the spread of nuclear weapons and associated technologies. Unlike climate change, comparatively few resources are allocated to nuclear resilience — how quickly a city would bounce back from a strike.

But, it seems, the worst effects of climate change are accepted as inevitable. Governments, companies, and foundations spend billions of dollars on "day after" resilience.

Since 2013, The Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities initiative has leveraged nearly a billion dollars to help cities develop resilience strategies. The World Bank is spending more than a billion dollars on similar efforts.

Yet there are no comparable, large-scale efforts on climate adaptation. Rather than mitigate or adapt, investors, philanthropists, and city leaders seem to accept, as inevitable, that climate change will destroy their cities.

Climate resilience is essential to city planning. But so is climate mitigation and adaptation.

When it comes to survival, one-out-of-three won't cut it.