OPINION: Both parties can find common ground on climate change

By Jimmy O’Hara, Contributor

When responding to a changing climate, mitigation and adaptation are not one and the same.  Across media and public discourse, conversations about climate change are often framed in terms of mitigation, leaving adaptation efforts overshadowed.  With so much disagreement between right-leaning and left-leaning audiences, I believe that understanding how adaptation differs from mitigation can help activists cultivate more support from conservative individuals.

Mitigation efforts seek to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For example, riding your bike or carpooling to work both reflect mitigation practices.  Carpooling reduces the total amount of carbon emissions from car exhaust because one car is used instead of multiple cars. Similarly, riding a bike does not require burning fossil fuels at all.  People who consistently bike as their primary form of transportation are reducing the extent to which they personally contribute to greenhouse gas buildup.

Adaptation efforts on the other hand, prepare humans for the inevitable effects that current climate change patterns will bring in the future. Adaptation accepts that climate change is occurring and seeks to make humans more resilient to future impacts like natural disasters.  An example of adaptation is strengthening infrastructure, such as creating storm surge barriers or seawalls. Such barriers prevent excessive flooding, preparing coastal communities for currently unavoidable climate change impacts like strong hurricane storm surges.

Mitigation considers the causes of climate change, while adaptation seeks to reduce the inevitable.  However, I feel that it is important to understand that adaptation does not imply complacency or giving up.  I practice mitigation daily, and I believe it is as important as adaptation. I assert that adaptation can bridge the gap between liberal and conservative perspectives on climate change.

Although conservatives and liberals disagree on the causes of climate change, nearly all individuals agree that the climate is changing.  I believe this is where adaptation comes to the rescue.

Scientists and left-leaning individuals assert that our warming climate is primarily human-caused, whereas right-leaning individuals contend that the observed climate fluctuations occur by natural means.  I think liberals like myself have the power to engage conservatives with climate issues by starting with adaptation. Essentially, adaptation can ease right-leaning individuals into the climate change conversation because it suggests climate change action without necessarily relying on causes.

While mitigation efforts are centered around reducing carbon footprint, adaptation efforts seek to improve resilience regardless of climate change causes. In other words, mitigation efforts assume that climate change is human-caused, whereas adaptation does not require acceptance of human-caused climate warming.

I have noticed through my conversations with right-leaning individuals that framing climate change in terms of mitigation can discourage conservatives from engaging with climate issues.  Mitigation appears to decreasing conservatives’ willingness to pursue any kind of environmental action. However, framing climate change from the perspective of adaptation has been shown to more effectively reach conservative audiences.

In 2015, a study entitled “Coverage and framing of climate change adaptation in the media: A review of influential North American newspapers during 1993–2013,” assessed trends among climate change related articles published between Jan. 1, 1993 and Dec. 31, 2013 across popular news outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. The researchers found that mitigation dominated the climate change conversation, with adaptation receiving significantly less coverage. When adaptation was covered, narratives were centered on the need to adapt, rather than discussing actual examples

I believe these findings present problems in how adaptation is framed in media and public discourse.  Failure to discuss adaptation can lead to gaps in public understanding of adaptation as a viable response strategy.  If the public doesn’t understand adaptation, how can we expect policymakers to implement solutions that resiliently prepare us for the inevitable effects of a changing climate?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for mitigation.  I recycle, I carpool, I drink from a reusable water bottle, I limit my showers to five minutes.  Anyone who knows me understands I am passionate about mobilizing others to take sustainable action and reduce their carbon footprint.  

But as a liberal climate change activist, I am constantly seeking new ways to effectively engage my conservative peers with climate issues.  Right or left, most of us agree that climate change is happening, regardless of cause. The media – and individual activists – need to capitalize on this by framing climate change in ways that garner support from all audiences.

We each play a role in telling the story of climate change.  Telling these stories through the lens of adaptation is often a smart place to start.

Photo Courtesy of Alexis Glenn/ Creative Services