Climate Adaptation – A Better Response to Uncertainty?

Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2021


Over the period 2011 to 2018, the actions that had been taken by governments around the world to respond to climate change cost almost U.S. $3.7 trillion. Of that total, only U.S. $190 billion, or 5%, was spent on adaptation. Almost all the rest was spent on mitigation.

This article offers some information and views about what climate adaptation means, its present and possible role in the Canadian climate policy response, and principles that might guide governments in their decisions with respect to the nature and timing of adaptation investments. It argues that adaptation and, more important, building economic reliance in changing times, are more prudent than attempting to mitigate uncertain future effects, but that policy discipline is required whichever path is taken.

Humans have been adapting to changes in the global climate for as long as they have existed. Adaptation to future climate changes, whether or not caused by human activities, will occur if and when the people affected determine that there is a need to change. This is what natural adaptation means. In climate policy, however, adaptation relates to the actions that governments will take and/or require people to take soon in order to anticipate changes in the climate that have not yet occurred but are projected on the basis of mathematical models. In other words, climate policy largely is concerned with adaptation to events based on high levels of uncertainty.

Some view adaptation as more economically justified than measures to mitigate potential climate changes through reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They estimate that one dollar invested in adaptation yields about four dollars in benefits. Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg estimates that one dollar going to mitigation yields only 11 cents in benefits. A dollar invested in helping Canada adapt to climate changes here is more likely to have genuine national benefits than a dollar spent on mitigating global climate changes over which Canada, with its small share of emissions cannot possibly hope to influence, let alone control. Policy pragmatists, aware of the enormous influence of the environmental lobby in Canada, view adaptation as a policy “half-way house” that is less expensive and intrusive than mitigation measures and may be useful to endorse if only to evade the vile insult of being called a “climate denier”.

Adaptation policy faces the same challenge as mitigation policy – the uncertainty about what the future holds, about when to act and how much to spend. The more alarmed observers focus on the substantial challenges associated with long-lived decisions with high stakes and high sunk costs. These include major infrastructure, building developments and land use planning. Thus, some have proposed major restrictions on infrastructure development within 15 kilometres of ocean coastlines, moving whole cities inland, banning all development in certain areas, and fundamentally altering building codes at great cost to future residential, commercial and industrial building owners. Depending on how extreme these measures were, they might come to rival the immense costs of mitigation measures now underway and contemplated. The more intrusive adaptation measures are often premised on the efficacy of government planning of the economy, based on probabilistic modeling of the future costs and benefits of options. An alternative is called “Dynamic Adaptive Policy Pathways”(DAPP). Flexibility and iterative planning are core elements of this approach. Its objective is to “develop an iterative, learning decision process that cost-effectively reduces risk today while avoiding foreclosing future options. Considering the full range of plausible scenarios, the DAPP approach provides clear information on the effectiveness and timing of options, enabling analysts to assess under which conditions and on which timescale a plan could fail.

Image licensed from Shutterstock.

Thus, there is room for anticipatory adaptation, so long as it is flexible and dynamic. Yet, the best policy approaches could involve borrowing a page from economics – the concept of resilience. Resilience is the ability of an economy to “bounce back” in the face of unexpected events and shocks to the system. Germany after the Second World War offers an example. A completely devastated country recovered its prosperity within a generation due to a cultural tradition that emphasized hard work, efficiency, pride in a job well done, valuing education, stable family relationships, and respect for the rule of law. Equally important, the economic culture valued enterprise, risk taking and individual responsibility, as well as broadly cordial relationships between capital and labour groups and support for the modern welfare state. The same principles of resilience are applicable to dealing with any climate changes that may occur in future.

Whether justified or not, political elites in Canada and other western countries, along with the media and a substantial share of the public, support a large climate policy response. In these circumstances, adaptation measures cost far less and offer far more certain national benefits than mitigation measures. Like mitigation, they can involve much more intrusive government planning and regulation of the economy, and they can be extremely expensive. It is important that the approach to adaptation instead be based on flexible and iterative planning, with a shift away from probabilistic modelling. It is even more important that they promote a permanent form of economic resilience rather than an increased dependence on central planning.

About the Author

Robert Lyman is an economist with 27 years’ experience as an analyst, policy advisor and manager in the Canadian federal government, primarily in the areas of energy, transportation, and environmental policy. He was also a diplomat for 10 years. Subsequently he has worked as a private consultant conducting policy research and analysis on energy and transportation issues as a principal for Entrans Policy Research Group. He is a frequent contributor of articles and reports for Friends of Science, a Calgary-based independent organization concerned about climate change-related issues. He resides in Ottawa, Canada. Full bio.


  1. Dr Francis Manns

    Science over ‘scientism’ will probably be best done in the future over the internet. The universities are influenced by research grants to departments and that biases the graduate research effort toward what government will and/or will not support.

  2. Jon Steel

    Finally……something in print that aligns with my own 60 year plus conclusion.

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