How climate change changes society in the ‘age of adaptation’

We are now in the 'age of adaptation'. What does that mean and how does it change how we think about climate?

The central argument is we are now in the age of adaptation. That does not mean that we are out of the age of mitigation; you can chew gum and walk at the same time; in fact you have to chew gum and walk at the same time. Adaptation is the failure of mitigation but it is not the opposite of mitigation: the less you mitigate the more you will have to adapt.’

The planet is getting hotter ‒ anyone under the age of 44 has not seen a cooler than average year – and yet we still think of climate change as a future threat. The $100 billion a year of climate finance promised by the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) has not been provided but has already been spent – by individuals rather than governments, as they repair their homes and businesses after floods and other catastrophic events. And the polar bear stranded on the ice cap is not waiting for humans to rescue him, as he long ago stopped believing in our promises to save nature and the planet.

In this thought-provoking discussion, Professor Adil Najam, founding Dean at the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, Professor of International Relationships and of Earth and Environment, and incoming President of WWF International, urges us to look at the climate crisis in a different way. He argues that mitigation – that is, the prevention of problems due to climate change – has not worked, and that therefore we must additionally find ways to adapt. And the Age of Adaptation, he says, ‘fundamentally changes the nature of climate policy as well of climate politics; it invites us to reconsider how we conceptualise climate action.’ Key points include:

  • Our language of climate has become focused on energy and carbon emissions. This remains important, but we also need to look more broadly at nature, and at how other species and ecosystems may also be adapting to climate change – because that, too, will have an impact.
  • The politics of climate is likely to become more contentious, especially as adaptation will make global inequalities much clearer – the problems of energy poverty, extreme heat, and water and food insecurity are all more prevalent in the global south.
  • Yet there may be opportunities in adaptation, and smart finance for adaptation is thinking of adaptation as development.

The discussion was hosted by Abrar Chaudhury. Abrar is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Fellow at Saïd Business School researching on topics of global environmental change, climate finance and corporate purpose. You can learn more about Abrar's research on Oxford Answers.

Adil Najam event