Adaptation Or Mitigation? Lessons From Abolition In The Battle Over Climate Policy

By John Sterman

What’s the best way to address the risks of climate change?  Mitigation or Adaptation?  Should the world cut greenhouse gas emissions to lower the risks of harm from climate change (mitigation), or should we just get used to it (adaptation), spending to build seawalls, move populations inland, and figure out how to grow food for more than 9 billion people in a world of higher temperatures, droughts, and extreme weather?

Many people, including some I greatly respect, have lately argued that advocacy for mitigation isn’t working, so we should shift to advocacy for adaptation.  They say that’s where the interest is after Superstorm Sandy, that’s how to get people engaged, and that’s where the money is. The frustration of climate activists around mitigation is understandable.  The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference was deeply discouraging, and since then the international negotiations have stalled.  Total pledges for emissions reductions under the UNFCCC’s voluntary system, even if fully implemented, are nowhere near enough.  With gridlock in the US Congress and the erosion of climate commitments in other nations, more and more people are giving up on mitigation.

Of course, adaptation is necessary.  We’ve already warmed the climate about 1.4 °F (0.8 °C) over preindustrial levels.  Global CO2 emissions have reached new records every year since 2009.  In May, atmospheric CO2 hit 400 ppm for the first time in human history. We are dumping CO2 into the atmosphere about twice as fast as nature can remove it.  Even with the best imaginable policies, the climate will keep changing for decades, and sea level will keep rising for centuries.  Adaptation is necessary.

However, adaptation without mitigation is futile.  Since Sandy the focus has been on updating flood maps and building sea walls.  But sea walls are the Maginot line of climate change.   Sea walls won’t help with ocean acidification, water shortage, drought, more and more dangerous wildfires, declines in agricultural output, and the many other impacts of climate change, not to mention the climate refugees and risks of war in regions those impacts create.  However, when we point out that there’s no adapting to the changes in the climate we are facing if we don’t cut emissions dramatically, some adaptation advocates say,
“yes, but if we can convene people around adaptation, they’ll soon see its limitations and will end up strongly advocating mitigation as part of their local adaptation plan.”

I’m deeply skeptical.  It is more likely that the current push for adaptation will consume all the resources, energy and attention around climate change, so mitigation won’t be considered, or become an afterthought.  New York City just released its $20 billion climate resilience plan.  The plan focuses on adaptation, and pays no attention to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that create the need for adaptation in the first place.  Nearly 50 mayors and other local leaders just signed on to the new Resilient Communities for America Agreement (RC4A), pledging to invest in adaptation and urging “state and federal leaders to support our local resilience initiatives and to take meaningful steps to build resilience and security throughout the nation.” There are potential synergies between adaptation and mitigation, and these should be exploited.  For example, the RC4A recognizes that investments in emissions reductions can “avoid the costs of adapting to more severe climate impacts.”  But the focus is on hardening local infrastructure and preparing for more extreme events, not mitigation, especially not at the level of national policy or international agreements.

Unfortunately, spending on sea walls, beach nourishment, hardening infrastructure, and other adaptation measures consumes resources that could be spent on mitigation.  And adaptation doesn’t do anything to capture the harmful externalities of greenhouse gas emissions by, for example, pricing carbon at its true cost, thus weakening incentives to invest in efficiency and renewable, low-carbon energy.  Worse, adaptation measures are likely to ease the pressure people feel to price greenhouse gas emissions or cut emissions through moral hazard and moral licensing effects.  When people have subsidized flood insurance or believe the government will bail them out after a disaster, they are more likely to build in the danger zone and less willing to reduce their risk.  Similarly, if people believe adaptation protects them from the risks of rising seas or more severe storms they may be less willing to cut their personal carbon footprint or work for policies that would reduce emissions.

But can we do it?  Can we cut emissions?  Can we create an energy system and economy that works, sustainably, for everyone?  Technologically, the answer is yes.  Those who say we don’t have the technology, that clean, renewable energy is too expensive, that building a sustainable economy have a profoundly pessimistic view of human ingenuity.  Efficiency, wind, solar and other renewable, low carbon technologies are getting cheaper every day.  Many actions to reduce emissions are profitable today, with ready to go, off the shelf technologies.  If fossil fuel prices reflected the true costs of the emissions they create then even more technologies for mitigation would be cost effective today.

But can we build the public support for policies, from individual communities to the nation to the world as a whole, that will create incentives for innovation, speed the scale up of new technologies, and realize the potential for emissions reductions?

I’m constantly told it’s naïve to keep working for mitigation, that there’s no chance for national or international policy to cut emissions, that we will never get anything through the Congress, and forget about agreements with China, India, and other developing nations.

I say stranger and more amazing things have happened, and in my lifetime.  During the Cold War few people on either side believed they would live to see the Berlin Wall come down.  And yet it fell.  Few believed they would live to see the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  And yet it ended, peacefully.  Few believed they would live to see an end to the violence in Northern Ireland.  And yet there is calm in that troubled land.  I am sure you can think of other transformations that have made the world a better place, changes that were once considered impossible.

We should take heart from those who worked to end slavery and the slave trade.  Some scholars estimate that as recently as the late 18th century three-quarters of all the people in the world were held in some form of bondage, from those taken as outright slaves to indentured servants, debt slaves, serfs, or women sold into prostitution or arranged marriages against their will.

Slavery was normal.  Slavery was routine.  There was slavery in Europe.  There was slavery in Asia.  Native Americans had slaves.  Africans had slaves. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, condones slavery.  The Greeks had slaves even as they created democracy.  Slavery had always existed and few doubted that it always would.

In Great Britain the slave trade thrived.  Millions of Africans were taken as slaves to the New World, many to toil and die in the cane fields of the West Indies producing sugar, molasses and rum, the profits from which paid for the goods used to buy more slaves in Africa via the infamous triangle trade.

Just as with our dependence on fossil fuels, an odious and noxious industry was a linchpin of the economy.  Many believed prosperity depended on it, a sentiment captured by slave merchant, James Houston, who wrote “What a glorious and advantageous trade this is…. It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves.”

At the beginning, only a few seriously worked to end slavery and the slave trade.  The Quakers had long opposed it.  Other joined the movement, including Thomas Clarkson, who abandoned a promising career to devote his life to abolition, John Newton, the slaver-turned-minister who wrote “Amazing Grace”, the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano, the politician William Wilberforce, and many others.

They faced years of indifference, yet worked tirelessly to raise public awareness and build support for their cause.  It took years to gather enough support to bring a bill banning the slave trade before Parliament.  Slavers and planters greenwashed, lobbied and bribed.  The abolitionists lost.  A year later they lost a second vote.  Did they say, ‘Slavery has always existed and it always will.  Parliament will never pass this law’?  Did they say ‘We must turn to adaptation.  Let us work to improve the conditions on slave ships.  Let us work to keep slave owners from beating and raping their slaves’?

They did not.  They did not erode their goals.  They kept their eyes on the prize.  They redoubled their efforts.  And they prevailed.  An institution that had always existed, that people believed would always exist, that was believed to be essential to prosperity, ceased to exist.  The British economy did not collapse.  Abolition spread to other nations.

Of course the struggle for human rights continues.  We have much yet to do.  But the lesson for climate activists is clear.  We can do it.

We can do it.  But will we?

Change is not inevitable.  The policies needed to stimulate innovation, cut emissions, and build a sustainable, prosperous economy will not just happen.

The Obama administration just announced its new climate policy plan.  With gridlock in the Congress, the program centers on administrative actions such as rules governing greenhouse emissions from new power plants.  But just because the administration has the authority, affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007, to regulate CO2 as a pollutant, don’t imagine that this announcement of new policies constitutes victory.  Those with vested interests in fossil fuels will oppose these policies with every tactic at their disposal.  The policies could be tied up in litigation, overridden by Congress, or weakened by the administration itself, delaying or preventing implementation.

The road to victory will be long.  It requires that we work to overcome the counter-reaction so that the administration’s forthcoming proposals are implemented.  It requires that we work for adaptation and mitigation, without falling for the lie that adaptation is enough.  It requires that we build on these initial steps to implement even stronger policies, in the United States and around the world.  Victory will come only if we get involved.  Join any of the hundreds of groups, left, right, and center, working for rational policy to cut emissions, create jobs, and build a sustainable economy, from to the Citizens Climate Lobby, to ConservAmerica (formerly Republicans for Environmental Protection), to Environmental Entrepreneurs, to Mothers Out Front, among many others.

We must create the change we need by cutting our personal carbon footprints.  We must create the change we need by demanding that our elected representatives put a price on carbon, so that we pay the true costs of the fossil fuels we use.  If our leaders don’t act, we must create the change we need by electing new leaders who will.  We can do it.  We’ve done harder things before.  But we have to act, now.

MIT’s John Sterman is one of the world’s leading experts on systems thinking.

88 Responses to Adaptation Or Mitigation? Lessons From Abolition In The Battle Over Climate Policy

  1. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    We need to continue the Good Fight no matter what, get the world to reduce emissions and share tech that will help the developing nations go green. We also need to work at the community level in our own cities and towns to raise awarness and propose plans for sustainablity. We know we will be facing extreme climate events while trying to acommplish all this but there is no choice if we want to have a climate we can still live with. Without reductions of carbon emissions all the adaptation we could possibly afford will in the end not save lives or a livable planet. How bad it gets will depend on how hard we fight and keep fighting because in the end we really have no choice.

  2. robert says:

    I don’t know any ecologists or social scientists who can tell me what “adaptation” means in the face of 11 deg F global ave. temp. rise by 2100. And I know quite a few ecologists and social scientists.

    “Adaptation” makes it sound like we get used to a little more warmth and less snow on the mountains. I honestly don’t think there’s any “adapting” to the scale of change an unmitigated cllimate has in store.

  3. Greatgrandma Kat says:


    Look at the world what do you see

    The beauty of nature from planets to bees

    It ranges from galaxys far far away

    To the internal workings of DNA

    It weaves all together in a flawless plan

    With a start over switch built right in

    A small blue planet a drift in the black

    Only part of the whole, a mystery in fact


  4. Michael Berndtson says:

    Funny, I was just thinking about the authors school, MIT. The Chemical Engineering department received a $125 million gift from David Koch. Who’s a chemical engineer himself and an alum. And given his family’s business, would love to get us all not thinking about mitigation. And of course assigning blame on combustion of fossil fuel systems.

    The mitigation/adaption argument seems similar to groundwater remediation (cleanup). Its important to remove and cut off the source of contamination before actual groundwater cleanup begins in earnest. In other words (or another analogy), fix the damn leak before spending too much time bailing.

    We are at the point that if we continue to accelerate warming by emitting more and more CO2,even adaptation measures will be silly and useless. CH4 and CO2 levels in the atmosphere could impact human systems – let alone the flora and fauna other than ourselves. Acceleration of permafrost and ice cap melt increases can’t be good. More ice melts. The higher the sea levels rise. Along with an increase in storms strength and frequency. Those silly dikes and seawalls we build today will become useless tomorrow. Maybe Koch Sheet Pile and Rip Rap, Inc. could make a killing in future, no?

  5. Superman1 says:

    What do you mean by ‘mitigation’? Wili linked to a Nature article in the Revere post stating that emissions effectively have to be halved when other variables besides temperature are considered. Anderson’s 10%/annum global emissions reductions for 2 C would have to be roughly doubled to ~20%/annum. But, that’s still for a 2 C base. Cutting to a 1 C base (borderline dangerous) essentially leaves no options but elimination of all non-essential uses of fossil fuel (and perhaps some essential uses) starting now.

  6. This essay is 100% on the mark. Adaptation without mitigation is futile–in fact, worse than futile, as Sterman notes, because it’ll divert resources and give the impression we’re spending our resources and time effectively.

    Without serious and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas output, the push for adaptation is just a sophisticated form of denial. It denies the scale of the situation. It denies that we have to alter the way we live. It denies that we must stop the problem at its source, which is burning oil, coal, and gas.

    First, let’s take our foot off the accelerator. Adaptation works only if we stop adding more fuel to an already overloaded dynamic.

    We might adapt to a 2°C world if emissions were under control. Even so, the risk of malinvestment is extreme. We’d have to anticipate a host of unmeasurable targets. How high should New York build a sea wall or a floodgate? The estimated average height of the sea in 2050? The estimated peak height? Will the peak be driven by another Category 1 Sandy, or by a Category 5 Katrina, or by something worse? What about in 2100? What about every other coastal city? Will London’s floodgate on the Thames function when sea level is a foot higher? Will hurricanes show up there, too?

    And what about other effects of climate change? Adaptation planning assumes linear extrapolations of current conditions. The chief feature of an unstable system is unpredictability. Dynamic behavior under stress is nonlinear. The risk of discontinuities—abrupt, fundamental changes in function—is high. Think of an overheated engine or circuit. Each works predictably until the instant their functional mode abruptly changes to failure.

    Drastic shifts in weather patterns will drive food shortages and damage infrastructure. The world economy can’t function if food is unreliable, and that will compound the problem in a nasty feedback loop. Less money means less investment, leading to inefficiency and yet less money to invest, and on and on in a descending spiral.

    This doesn’t even factor in the psychology of such a scenario. It wouldn’t be conducive to peace, let alone cooperation on the most capital-intensive engineering projects in history.

    Planning to adapt to a 2°C world is like planning to adapt to a permanent state of war. Planning to adapt to a 6°C world is like planning to adapt to another Chicxulub asteroid.

  7. “Many people, including some I greatly respect, have lately argued that advocacy for mitigation isn’t working, so we should shift to advocacy for adaptation.”

    I suggest that you stop respecting these people, as they have clearly taken leave of their critical faculties. As an aside, you should at least quote them so we all know to whom you are referring.

  8. fj says:

    Designing for net zero means that stuff is highly resilient and works much better; and when things go wrong, are much easier to get working.

    It can be net zero transportation where vehicles are small and light enough to be easily moved by human power.

    And can be net zero extremely efficient building designs whether super insulated and or passive solar and or active solar, etc.

  9. fj says:

    Designing for adaptation only is foolish and is probably not much different than smoking filter cigarettes.

  10. BobbyL says:

    In this case, the road to victory better be short, real short. In fact, if the goal is to stay below 2C we have probably already lost. Since the nations of the world have agreed not to implement a mitigation plan until 2020 (if they can ever sign on to one) that pretty much makes it impossible to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2C. Probably we need to redefine the goal, staying under 3C perhaps, and do the best we can now that the window of opportunity to stay below 2C (which many scientists say is actually too much warming to be manageable) has seemingly closed when you factor in international politics.

  11. Dano says:

    Unfortunately, spending on sea walls, beach nourishment, hardening infrastructure, and other adaptation measures consumes resources that could be spent on mitigation.

    Say it like it is: mitigation means fossil fuel profits fall. Therefore adaptation is much better.



  12. Michael Glass says:

    You can’t “adapt” to a moving target. As long as GHGs are rising, the temperature will continue to head in the direction of Venus.

    Talking about “adaptation” without mitigation is meaningless. Reducing GHGs emissions to sustainable levels is the adaptation.

  13. fj says:

    bilateral action by the US and China at wartime speed to stop accelerating climate change would be a good start

    resources for the world’s largest cities and to go net zero

    $200 billion per year for 5 years for nyc to go net zero

  14. Turboblocke says:

    Follow the money…
    Adaptation means consuming more, either to replace stuff destroyed by climate change or to protect stuff from climate change.

    Mitigation means consuming less. Where’s the profit in that?

  15. Syd Bridges says:

    I suspect that for many of the world’s poor, dying will be the adaption method they are forced to adopt. Whether it will be through starvation or genocide I do not know. But that’s their fault for being poor.

  16. BobbyL says:

    Yep, speed is everything. I have never seen the sense of comparing a climate movement with past human rights movements in the US that took decades to achieve success. In this struggle, we are on the clock. This is literally a race against time. Building a movement over many years is simply not a viable option.

  17. Leif says:

    “Where is the profit in that?” A planet that has a chance of supporting biodiversity and livable life support systems for the Kidders would be quite valuable I would think.

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sounds like ‘adaptation only’ is the new strategy for the deniers. Defeatism was never a smart line to take as it would appeal to only a few. Adaptation only, however, sounds like it is doing something to help while in reality, exacerbating the problem, ME

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Bobby, climate change has been around for about 50 years. Social change typically follows an S curve where change happens slowly and almost invisibly until the point of discontinuity when suddenly it’s all over the place and the war is won. This will be no different to previous shifts, ME

  20. BobbyL says:

    The climate crisis is much different than anything we have faced in the past and I would not look at history for any lessons, and certainly not those that brought about social change. This cannot be neatly defined as a human rights issue although there are some human rights aspects. I don’t think it fits into any category that we have. Whatever curve social change followed in the past is irrelevant. Are you predicting this same curve in China, India, Russia? The only curves that really matter at this point are the curves at plotted by scientists. If you ask me, these curves look pretty ominous, be it CO2, sea level, global temperature, etc.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Bobby, all social change involves change in beliefs, in this case towards the belief that climate change is caused by us and must be addressed urgently. No other country has a denier problem comparable with that of the USA and that’s why Sterman is correct in using the abolitionist example, ME

  22. Nell says:

    Let’s see how people adapt to skyrocketing food and energy prices.

  23. fj says:

    We are in an emergency; a crisis of the worst kind; social change must be driven from the top down like after Pearl Harbor, command and control, from the top down.

    This must happen now.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Great ideas Kat, but they will not work, will not be allowed to work, as long as the global economic/political dispensation remains as it is. So long as the ideological Right totally dominant, all the good work of sane, moral, people will be undone by greater damage elsewhere, maniacal opposition and outright repression. And as long as capitalism, with its neoplastic drive to grow forever (the prime attribute of capitalism), holds total suzerainty over global economics, we haven’t got a hope in Hell. It is time for a complete renaissance for humanity-nothing else will suffice.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We have as much hope of adapting to this degree of change as the dinosaurs did to the changed circumstances after the meteorite strikes finished them off. Indeed I suspect ‘adaptation’ is often an underhand way of saying ‘adaptation’ for us, the rich and powerful, and, for the poor majority of the planet, something altogether less benign.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    When I’m rich, I’ll have a racehorse called Chicxulub.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s rather like the awful journalistic practise, in the MSM propaganda system, of many of the presstitutes’ ‘sources’ being anonymous. You cannot discern whether they even exist, nor draw conclusions about their reliability from experience. Now, I ought to apologise to the author for comparing him to MSM hacks, but anonymous sources are useless, at best, in my opinion.

  28. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Spot on! Turbocharged logic.

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You well understand the system Syd, and its drivers.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The poor and weak will starve and die, which has always been the plan.

  31. fj says:

    Bloomberg probably had to do a lot to put together that 20 billion dollar budget for adaptation. It had to make sense to him. He had to understand the scale of what he was to propose. It is a lot of money.

    But what he really has to understand is the scale of what is actually going on.

    And what is at stake and how we must move on this thing immediately before things really change to such that all the money in the world will be meaningless; nothing will stop it; no amount of money will stop the coming perfect storms.

    And, then money and many other things and maybe everything will be meaningless.

    No amount money will even stop the ordinary storms of now.

    But if we work together; tens of millions of people together in the world’s greatest cities all over the globe; something that Bloomberg has set in place with his; to minimize the emissions that are causing the climate storms coming at an accelerating pace; then, maybe we will have a chance with these extraordinary megatropolis engines under continual redesign for mass salvation.

    We have to start now immediately at the true scale of this thing and at the true scale of that which we must do.

  32. Superman1 says:

    “We might adapt to a 2°C world if emissions were under control.” That depends on how one interprets Anderson’s label of 2 C as ‘Extremely Dangerous’. My interpretation is there is reasonable (perhaps ‘good’) likelihood of positive feedback mechanisms becoming self-sustaining, leading to ‘runaway’ temperatures. How can we adapt to that?

  33. Superman1 says:

    Jonathan, Do you agree with his clause “have lately argued that advocacy for mitigation isn’t working”? If so, what would be your clause that follows?

  34. fj says:

    New York City is a trillion dollar real estate market central to one of the world’s largest trillion dollar economies.

    While economics is not rational, but from a purely economic sense of scale, it seems right to allocate one-fifth trillion dollars per year for five years to make New York City the first major net zero city and gateway to humanity’s future.

    Let no one say the equity us not there.

  35. Turboblocke says:

    Of course that same amount of money would buy a lot of mitigation. The offshore London Array cost about $2.4 billion for about 630MW wind power. Not cheap, but it was an innovative new project. Future projects will get cheaper.

    So for 200 billion you could build about 60GW of wind power capacity… but the tragedy is that it seems to make more sense to people to protect their own property than to cooperate to protect everyone’s property.

  36. fj says:

    Disruptively high efficiencies are quickest most cost effective path to net zero.

  37. Great reflection, John, on focusing on the possible, not only on the probable, a focus without which we’d never have had a successful social movement. But from a systems perspective, what do you think were the pivot points in the anti-slavery movement, for example, or others, from which we might learn. Hope is one very important lesson. What strategic lessons can we learn?

  38. Superman1 says:

    The key takeaway, whether for anti-slavery, anti-smoking, anti-apartheid, anti-segregation, etc, is that if enough of a majority supports the effort, it will come to pass eventually. Conversely, …..

  39. Syd Bridges says:

    How do you adapt for no food and no fresh water? Or many coastal areas being inundated by the sea? Where do you grow the food when much of your agricultural land turns to dustbowls? How can farmers plan for increasingly violent and unpredictable weather?

    I guess Jonathan Swift came up with one answer in his “A Modest Proposal” of 1729. I wonder whether any Republican Congressmen are literate enough to have read it. If so, it may become yet another reason to eschew junk food.

  40. SecularAnimist says:

    Merrelyn Emery wrote: “Defeatism was never a smart line to take as it would appeal to only a few.”

    It appeals to plenty of the regular commenters here, which is exactly the target audience that the fossil fuel corporations’ defeatist propaganda is specifically designed for: the whole point is to enervate the very people who would, and should, be pushing hardest to fix the problem, who instead give up and sit around whining about how hopeless it is, regurgitating Koch-funded BS about wind power causing a “global depression”, and bitterly attacking anyone who advocates actual rapid implementation of the solutions at hand.

    Defeatism is the new denial.

  41. Sparky says:

    “An institution that had always existed, that people believed would always exist, that was believed to be essential to prosperity, ceased to exist. The British economy did not collapse. Abolition spread to other nations.”

    Sternman stops short of reminding us that the end of slavery in the U.S. came 2 years into a 4 year civil war and only applied to the Northern States or Southern States that had been subdued. Only with the surrender of the South in 1865 were they forced to recognize the Emancipation Proclamation. 600,000+ died in that war.

    Since energy consumption is even more private and defensible and standardized than slavery was I’ll predict a similar violent end, one way or another, to carbon-based energy.

    The better comparison would be to whale oil lamps. People didn’t suddenly grow sympathetic to whales. That energy source was eclipsed by kerosene. The problem I see is that the petro will still be available and the addiction will be hard to kick even with prolific solar charged electric cars.

    I think the only argument is for a complete and immediate conversion to sustainable energy sources regardless of the consequence or inconvenience…backed by laws to shut down all carbon-based operations. I live in Texas and I suspect this will lead to a secession followed by Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida, North Dakota, New Mexico…maybe all the states the Keystone XL passes through. California will probably become it’s own Republic and close its borders. This is why I’m not a politician.

    The scenarios I go through in my mind that should lead to sustainability never end in anything less than chaos that sets the entire movement back a century. And if we do anything less than what I think is required then we’re all going to burn up anyway.

    As BobbyL says, Slavery really is a bad comparison because as immoral as it is and was, it is environmentally irrelevant. Slavery has persisted for human history specifically because it CAN. The last two humans on earth will probably be a slave killing his master. Polluting our habitat has a finite end we can either avoid or be drowned by.

  42. Ken Barrows says:

    Change the food production and distribution system first. Much easier said than done.

  43. fj says:

    Economies based on slavery and fossil fuels seem to have interesting similarities and differences in terms of the respective burdens on society, human rights, violent and indirect structural violent natures.

  44. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I daresay Sec that they are capable of having two strategies in play at the same time, ME

  45. fj says:

    Considerable are the burdens that slavery and fossil fuel industries have had on societies’ economics, human rights, violent and indirect structural violent natures.

  46. J4Zonian says:


    Um, what’s your name again, Mulga?

    no, sorry, just kidding.

  47. J4Zonian says:

    It seems to me it’s more like smoking filter cigarettes

    after soaking them in Round Up and pulling the filters off.

  48. Joe Romm says:

    Actually, that isn’t the key takeaway. In all those efforts, it was a dedicated minority that drove change.

  49. J4Zonian says:

    ‘Amazing Grace’ is an inspiring movie about the 20 year Parliamentary campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, featuring the people mentioned: Newton, Wilberforce, Equiano, William Pitt the Younger.

    In the end they mostly won by a trick—the equivalent today would have to be hiding a provision in what in the US would be called an omnibus bill or in the budget. The law slyly allowed privateers to attack ships flying neutral flags. It was during one of the many periods of conflict with France and was meant to be mistaken as a war effort against France, since French ships flew the US flag to avoid being taken. But slave ships also flew US flags. British ships were equally liable since when flying the US flag British ships were not technically British and the privateers didn’t care about the distinction.

    The abolitionists thus made the slavers unwilling to risk their ships, effectively ending the slave trade. Having been deprived of their income the slavers no longer bothered or could afford to buy politicians, and abolition was passed shortly after. It seems unlikely that anyone could slip anything like this past the Republicans—outlawing coal on public roads or trains, for example, but a more general Fabian strategy might help the public strategy of protest (aka shaming) and harassment of greenhouse gas emitters. Republicans have very effectively used social issues and symbolism/framing to separate slivers of the left from the rest: mocking environmentalists as hippies, effectively destroying the power of unions with free corporate trade bills, using immigration as a wedge to separate aging white men from Hispanic and other immigrants (see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? for other examples.)

    In Nigeria women shame men by taking their clothes off in protests. I think this might be an excellent strategy for both genders of sane people, i.e., climate activists, and would certainly get more media attention than signs, intelligent talk and the arrest of puppets. We need to be creative in wearing down an opponent with tens or hundreds of millions of times the money we have.

  50. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’m going to take this discussion all the way back to one young man, a store owner in New Jersey near Philadelphia, having bad dreams about slavery in 1740. A customer asked him to write up a bill of sale for his slave. He did, but he felt bad. The customer asked him for a second bill of sale for another slave and he couldn’t write it.

    At the time, Quakers were just like everybody else in buying slaves except they often had more of them. The storekeeper, John Woolman, sold his store, learned to be a tailor and pretty much spent the rest of his life travelling and gently convincing other Quakers that slavery was immoral.

    Catastrophic climate change is immoral. Isn’t it?

    God didn’t just tell Noah to save his family. Noah equally had to save two of every animal as well as his sons and their wives. The animals are as important as the humans to our future survival. You may be suspicious of the story but it has a good moral for us.

    We have no word for making most of the 30 million species on eaarth extinct. “Abomination” is reserved for serving your household poisoned shellfish or badly cooked ham so that you wipe out your tribe you idiot. “Abomination” doesn’t come within a mile of this sin.

    Therefore, go, just yourself if that’s all you have, one person. In another 125 years you may pass an amendment to the Constitution abolishing catastrophic climate change. Go with righteousness for your cause, but with utter humility otherwise, because that’s what worked before.

  51. BobbyL says:

    While long struggles have overcome incredible obstacles, in the case of climate change in a sense it is already too late. Whatever struggle there was did not succeed. Okay, maybe if everything somehow falls into place we can stay below 3C, but is that really a victory? It is even doubtful if the terms victory or winning have any real meaning with this struggle. It is really a matter of how big a disaster it will turn out be.

  52. BobbyL says:

    See comment 22.

  53. Aussie John says:

    I wonder if any of those advocating adaptation understand that:

    1) We have already past any hope of limiting AGW to +2DegC,

    2) +3 to +4 DegC in now almost certain,

    3) “Hottest day” peak temperature during a heatwave will increase by 2x or 3x the rise in global mean temperature (dependent on geographical and local factors).

    Try growing a crop of cereal etc., or living in a city high rise with several days of 50DegC [122DegF] temps.

    Reference: Kevin Anderson 2012

  54. fj says:

    It is a big disaster now that will continue to grow “only” for several decades if me manage to stop accelerating climate change; virtually now.

  55. fj says:

    Based on what has happened 2C is unthinkable.

    When we get emissions to zero we will still have to stop the accelerating climate freight train.

    We need crash programs in related science and technology on scales never before dreamt of . . .now.

    We need to know what it means to get fully up to scale on this thing Now.

  56. fj says:

    We need to know when marine and other ecosystems are on the virge of collapse . . . Now.

  57. fj says:

    And still, The President and Bloomberg are not acting on the scale of this thing virtually sitting on their hands as are lots of other people of influence and power when the call to extreme action must be . . . Now.

  58. fj says:

    When they say that Obama has a war in coal, he should say that he is starting a war against extremely dangerous and accelerating climate change and we must have complete committment in this battle for our immediate future.

  59. fj says:

    And this is no time for liars and profiteers to run this country.

  60. fj says:

    And no time for profiteers to run this country.

  61. Superman1 says:

    Actually, it is. We can apply a Super-Pareto’s Law to the few who are on the front lines fighting for change and willing to risk it all, but when it comes to the actual legislation that encodes the change, it is there that the majority exerts its will. When/if we ever get a real majority that seriously supports climate change action and is willing to make the required sacrifices, then we will see the legislative actions follow quite rapidly.

  62. Superman1 says:

    “+3 to +4 DegC in now almost certain”. Do you believe we could stabilize at those temperatures, and not experience the positive feedback mechanisms becoming self-sustaining and leading to runaway temperatures.

  63. Joe Romm says:

    Actually not the way politics works in this country. We have a real majority that seriously supports climate change action. The key is the dedicated minority that will treat this as a single issue to vote/act on.

  64. Superman1 says:

    I think the strategy of the major part of the climate change movement is wrong. They tend to preach seamless and painless transitions, while solution to the problem requires major sacrifice. We need to use the type of approach the Special Forces or Marines use to get new recruits. They focus on sacrifice and meeting the challenge, not the soft approach. Let’s tell the grim tale as it is, and appeal to whatever it takes to meet and overcome the challenge.

  65. Superman1 says:

    “we can stay below 3C”. With all the positive feedback mechanisms we have activated already and will be accelerated as we increase temperature, and those that would be activated on the road to 3 C, I don’t see how we could limit the temperature to 3 C. It defies credibility!

  66. Superman1 says:

    JR, we obviously do not agree on the interpretation of ‘seriously’.

  67. Joe Romm says:

    Why don’t we have universal background checks? A large majority really wants them. Could it be your political model ain’t right? Oh I get it, they don’t “seriously” want them. Seriously!

  68. Superman1 says:

    JR, “We have a real majority that seriously supports climate change action.” Obviously, then, a winning issue for any political candidate who strongly supported it. That’s why it played such a major role in the Presidential debates. Oh, wait…..

  69. Superman1 says:

    Syd, There is a Salon article today entitled ‘Superman really will save us’. I posted my usual prognosis of where the climate is headed, and received one response. The response addresses the points you make, and I copy it on the following post.

  70. Superman1 says:

    “Superman1. Industrial systems will adapt, even if they have to terraform a wasted Earth. A smaller number of humans will survive, the natural world won’t as we know it, sadly. But the industrial system will only get stronger, even if humans live in dome cities or underground. We can process our own sewage, feed it to bacteria, convert bacteria into edible protein, etc. An entire human supporting only ecosystem can come from industrial yeast and bacteria, etc. It will be an ugly, sterile world… but humanity will go on. We have more to fear of in being replaced entirely by machines and robots.”

  71. chessmen says:

    @Greatgrandma Kat and @Mulga Mumblebrain

    I am of the same opinion as Mulga. The geographic situation like the one the British colonies had in the 1700’s is ideal because of its distance from centers of power. They had the time, distance, and opportunity to experiment with political structure. There is no similar geographic place of opportunity on Earth in modern times.

    But people like Greatgrandma Kat are the ones with the passion to apply change? They are needed. She has a role to play. Many skills, and many personality types are required for great change to be enabled.

  72. Joe Romm says:

    Uhh, who easily won? The guy who wanted action, or the guy who wanted inaction. Your argument is that because Obama easily won that proves a majority doesn’t want action????

  73. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s a state secret. Just for asking…well, you don’t want to know. In fact I’m a multi-faceted disinformation bore-bot, designed to spread disillusion, dismay and ennui by endless repetition of trite ‘profundities’, and banal jeremiads. And I’m paid by the word.

  74. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Defeatism is ‘The New Black’.

  75. Aussie John says:

    Superman1 1:43pm
    I am not a climate scientist – however in all my readings of the works of climate experts the consensus is that anything over 2DegC is most likely to be unstable due positive feedbacks.
    Prof Kevin Andrews:-
    At 48.05 Min – “There is a widespread view that a +4DegC future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of eco-systems & has a high probability of not being stable (ie 4DegC would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level)..
    4DegC should be avoided at ‘all’ costs.”

    He is not a lone voice with this advice.

  76. Superman1 says:

    “who easily won”. He didn’t do it by appealing for action on climate change. My point is that climate change was treated as the ‘third rail’ of politics in that election. If this ‘Silent Majority’ that supports ‘serious’ action on climate change exists, don’t you think that strong overt appeals would have been made directly, much as Nixon appealed to the other ‘Silent Majority’ forty years ago?

  77. Superman1 says:

    “I am not a climate scientist”. That’s a double-edged sword. In many disciplines, the experts become captives of the status quo, coloring their objectivity. I call it the Bridge on the River Kwai syndrome, remembering Alec Guinness’ attachment to the bridge he had built for the Japanese. The causes and required actions for climate change are rather obvious!

  78. Joe Romm says:

    Now you are really going off the rails. It isn’t a silent majority. It’s a majority. Many studies show that candidates who appeal to climate change do better than those who don’t.

  79. Joe Romm says:

    Science has a self-correcting feature that other disciplines don’t, so while humans tend to be captive of the status quo, science as a whole isn’t. The rewards for overturning the status quo are too huge.

  80. Superman1 says:

    JR, Is that right? For starters, take a hard look at the biomedical science literature. If ever there was a mega-discipline captive to the status quo, and those who profit from the status quo, biomedical science is the poster boy. The de facto role of the ‘experts’ is to uphold the status quo.

  81. fj says:

    The false grim denier tale is that we will suffer without fossil fuels promoted by the fossil fuel industry for very obvious corrupt reasons.

    The truly grim tale is business as usual and the consequences.

    The fossil fuel industry is a major drain on civilization and the environment.

    The optimistic tale is that people can work together using existing science and technology to minimize environmental foot prints including doing things in much better more practical highly efficient ways.

  82. kermit says:

    Adapting to global warming is like adapting to one’s kitchen being on fire.

  83. fj says:

    Of course there were scientists who thought the evidence favoring DNA was inconclusive and preferred to believe that genes were protein molecules. Francis, however, did not worry about these skeptics. Many were cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses. One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just s____d.

    – James D. Watson, The Double Helix

  84. fj says:

    Same sort of thing deniers say about the human cause of climate change.

    Actually, super duper, you defy credibility that you want to do anything to slow accelerating climate change.

    Have you ever taken a course in “Perverse Psychology”?

  85. fj says:

    The “real sacrifices” will be only by the extreme rich toward income equality and they will have less power.

    Actually, that wont be a real sacrifice at all since they are so rich and insulated they wont feel it.

    The real hardship will be felt with business as usual and the rapid advance of the horrors of climate change that will be felt by all.

  86. fj says:

    We must be focusing on eliminating emissions now and not something too far in the future; especially, when we start immediately on slowing accelerating climate change at wartime speed.

    This plays into denier delaying tactics.

    We must start immediately to stop accelerating climate change at wartime speed.

    We are now in an extreme emergency.

  87. fj says:


    We are now in an extreme emergency.

  88. fj says:

    Unfortunately, the extreme rich are so insulated by throwing money at stuff they dont realize that this is beyond money and extremely dangerous inaction is in part the result of the prevalent diseases of dominance and over confidence that is far from rational.