Climate Change: Stop Adapting, Start Preparing

(originally published June 7, 2012 at

Despite political polarization, there are some aspects of the climate issue where broad public consensus obtains. For instance, according to ecoAmerica’s “American Climate and Environmental Values Survey,”1 80 percent of Americans now agree with the statement, “I’ve noticed changes in the seasonal weather patterns where I live.” 77 percent agree that weather is getting more “unpredictable.” Americans broadly know that something is happening with the climate system.Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 4.08.11 PM
This presents a fresh opportunity to reengage the public on global warming, get past political polarization, and more effectively push towards solutions. A focus on climate impacts (damages) and their costs, coupled with preparedness (adaptation) and its cost can provide a new, more relevant framework for connecting with Americans.

“Adaptation” is an awkward term, not well understood at this point. Many environmentalists are inherently skeptical of leading with this approach. Advancing adaptation as a climate solution can mean supporting ongoing use of fossil fuels and giving up on mitigation measures. George Woodwell describes this problem well.

“The most common response (to climate change) appears to be exasperated cries for ‘realism’ and for simply adapting to the changes as they occur: business as usual. ‘Realism’ as envisioned by economists and an increasing number of scientists asserts no chance of success in abandoning fossil fuels. In that view there is the necessity for adaptation, accepting the changes already experienced and anticipating more. That process becomes the policy, sustained by the hope of muddling through.”

Under this interpretation, adaptation is a demobilizing concept for the general public and a policy certainly favored by the fossil fuels industry.

At the same time, Americans are broadly receptive to the concept of adaptation. The “Six Americas of Global Warming” surveys conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicate that Americans think it important for their community to take steps to protect water supply, the public’s health, agriculture and other aspects of local life from global warming. Large majorities including those dubbed “Cautious” and “Disengaged” rated these priorities as at least “somewhat important” or higher.

Can we use adaptation in a constructive way that motivates Americans toward true climate solutions instead of just living with the (disastrous) consequences?

ecoAmerica’s “Climate Impacts and Solutions”2 research (to be publicly released this month) shows a path forward. Using the concept of “preparedness” can be much more productive than using “adaptation.” Besides being a much more familiar term, it connotes an actionable sense of urgency. Other research suggests that engaging Americans around local efforts to prepare for climate change also has the additional effect of increasing their interest in climate mitigation policies.

In the state of Oregon, for instance, held “Climate Futures Forums” from 2008-2011. After surveying a sample of the stakeholders who were engaged in these conversations, 70% of respondents agreed that learning about the need for climate adaptation/preparation made them feel “an increased interest or action in mitigation.”3 This makes perfect sense: learning about the threats that global warming poses to a community naturally makes one want to mitigate those threats in any way possible, and not merely adapt to them.

The impacts and preparedness approach may even get around debates over whether global warming is real and if so, what is causing it. Focus group research by pollster Mark Mellman in Las Vegas, Charleston, and Chicago found that “people were most concerned about impacts that will directly affect them,” and that they “favor action to deal with these problems regardless of whether they perceive them to result from global warming.”4

And the strategic advantages continue. For instance, the most powerful argument against cap and trade—especially during a tenuous economic recovery—was that it costs too much, or is economically disruptive. Whether or not this is actually true, it was a devastating argument in terms of public support. But talking about climate preparedness changes this whole dynamic. Suddenly, the dialogue is about how much global warming costs—not about how much climate solutions cost–and how the costs are growing. When it comes to economics, the talk would be of numbers like these:

      : Insured crop losses set a new record in 2011: $ 10.08 billion, with more than 5 percent of claims still outstanding. The prior record, in 2008, was $ 8.67 billion.

5Disaster Relief

      : The federal Disaster Relief Fund spent $ 140.5 billion from 1989 through 2010. Two thirds, $95.2 billion


    , was in the decade from 2001 to 2010.

Disaster Declarations

      : The year 2011 saw a record number of federal disaster declarations—99 in total


      ; and a record number of disasters causing over $ 1 billion in damage—14 in total


    . The number of federal disasters declared is clearly rising.

Insured Catastrophe Losses

      : They’ve also been rising. In the U.S., four out of five of the most costly years for insurers have been in the past decade (2004, 2005, 2008, 2011). The 2011 amount, $ 35.9 billion, was the fifth highest on record.


Skeptics will be quick to point out that not all of this can be directly attributed to climate change, which is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, it is likely that climate change is playing a role in some of these numbers – and it puts the skeptics on the defensive.

Much remains unknown about how to communicate about adaptation in such a way as to engage Americans, which implies a need for more research. For now, it is enough to say that using a local “preparedness” approach can redefine the climate issue and help move it past the current partisan battle toward one of unified, collective action.
1 ecoAmerica and Strategic Business Insights, “The American Climate and Environmental Values Survey,” September 2011, Available online at
2 ecoAmerica/Lake Research Partners, Climate Impacts and Solutions Research, to be released June 2012.
Contact for more information.
3 The Resource Innovation Group, “Can Climate Change Preparedness Efforts Spur Greater Interest in Emissions Reductions? The Influence of Adaptation Planning on Attitudes Toward Climate Change Mitigation: Evidence from Oregon.” 2011 Working Paper.
4 Mark Mellman, “Preparing for a Changing Climate: Observations From Focus Groups and Interviews,” a presentation to Clean Air, Cool Planet, March 2011. Available online at
5 National Crop Insurance Services, “Crop Insurance Claims Break $ 10 Billion Barrier,” February 27, 2012. Available online at
6 Disaster Relief Funding and Emergency Supplemental Appropriations, Congressional Research Service, 12 April 2011. See Table 1. Available online at
7 Munich Re, “2011 Natural Catastrophe Year in Review,” January 4, 2012, available online at
8 NOAA, Billion Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters, 1980-2011, available online at
9 Munich Re, “2011 Natural Catastrophe Year in Review.”

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