Climate Risks: Linking Narratives to Action

To effectively manage climate risks we must strengthen ties between the mitigation and adaptation communities.

In June, President Obama’s signature speech on climate change elevated adaptation and preparedness in the national climate conversation, reinforcing a trend that has emerged throughout the environmental community. Although climate advocacy groups have historically avoided any mention of adaptation and preparedness—largely for fear that it would distract from mitigation—today they are embracing these terms as core to their climate narrative. This is a promising shift, as we need to develop a more holistic approach to managing climate risks.

However, despite this shift, the programmatic agenda of the climate advocacy movement has not yet caught up with this new narrative.

Climate risks of the here and now

Climate advocates are increasingly bringing attention to the risks of the here and now. A quick look at the press releases from some of the major environmental NGOs makes this apparent. As illustrated in Figure 1, since 2006 there has been a steady increase in the number of press releases in which major climate advocacy groups emphasize current climate risks—such as todays’s wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and ecosystem impacts—instead of emphasizing similar risks far in the future.


Figure 1. Trends in major NGO press releases.1

The severe drought and wildfires that have swept the nation in recent years, topped off by the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, have put climate risks back in the media and the American mind. And climate advocates are making sure that the public makes the connection between these events and the changing climate. However, a review of the annual reports and websites of these major climate advocacy groups reveals no significant shift toward prioritizing adaptation in their agendas—the advocacy groups’ documents and websites make scant references to programs focused on adaptation.

Separate but not equal

One major reason that climate advocacy groups haven’t fully embraced adaptation is that the climate mitigation and adaptation communities are two distinct groups. The climate mitigation community is largely made up of engineers, economists, and policy wonks, along with activists who are committed to “fight the good fight.” Meanwhile, the adaptation and preparedness community is mostly populated by geographers, sociologists, and ecologists, together with development aid personnel, hazard risk managers, and disaster responders, who are committed to solving problems and saving lives. Despite the converging narratives of these two communities around current climate risks, there remains very little overlap in the work they do. This is apparent when comparing the NGOs participating in the National Adaptation Forum, one of the first major national adaptation-focused meetings, with members of the US Climate Action Network (USCAN), the largest network of NGOs traditionally working mostly on mitigation-focused climate advocacy. Only a handful of NGOs participated in both.


Figure 2. NGOs that are members of USCAN or attended the National Adaptation Forum.2

To effectively address the climate crisis, we must strengthen ties between the mitigation and adaptation communities.

The here and now is about adaptation

Addressing the here and now of climate change is largely about adaptation, as we cannot address the climate risks of today by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases. Instead, tackling today’s climate risks requires better infrastructure and institutions. But mitigation advocates shouldn’t see acknowledging the need for adaptation as defeat. Many effective policies to address adaptation can, if properly structured, have positive mitigation effects. Efforts on adaption may also drive awareness of the costs of climate change, building support for more aggressive mitigation. We need to move beyond talk about the “here and now” of the climate challenge to look for deeper integration of our programmatic agendas. To start, we need a better dialogue between these communities.

Identifying synergies and avoiding conflicts

The scientific community has identified potential synergies, trade-offs, and conflicts between mitigation and adaptation activities. In practice, however, the adaptation and mitigation communities have distinct foci that inhibit collaboration. Better integrating these communities will help identify synergies, understand the trade offs, and avoid potential pitfalls.

Adaptation needs a strong advocate.

The adaptation and preparedness community does not have the battle-tested political savvy of the mitigation community. Advocacy organizations are critical partners for setting agendas and engaging policy makers to push from planning to action on adaptation. Unlike with mitigation, where we know what we need to  do—transition away from fossil fuels—with adaptation, the strategies are less clear. There are many uncertainties, and many risks of maladaptation and corruption. To get it right, we need to be attentive to science, politics, and the experiences of our communities. That will take all climate advocates and adaptation practitioners working together.

1 We reviewed press releases from a representative sample of major NGOs: Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Fund, Greenpeace USA, and Earthjustice. Note that the numbers don’t add to 100 percent in any given year because some press releases mentioned both or weren’t clear about when the impacts would occur.

2 Circle size is proportional to the organization’s estimated climate and energy budget. All organizations with an estimated climate budget under $2 million are the same size. All of the organizations whose press releases we reviewed for Figure 1 are members of USCAN.

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  • Bob Perkowitz's avatar

    BY Bob Perkowitz

    ON August 19, 2013 11:23 AM

    You might consider shifting from adaptation to preparation, especially if you’re trying to make climate change more relevant to Americans.  Adaptation is, at best, a passive term that accepts our burning of fossil fuels and leads to addressing the consequences.  It is demobilizing for activists and disempowering for anyone working toward mitigation.  Hence, it is the preferred strategy for the American Petroleum Association and other polluters for dealing with climate change.

    Preparation is a much better term.  It frames the issue as a more immediate threat that requires action at the personal, community and national level.  It inspires action that can be channeled toward risk mitigation. 


  • Amy Luers's avatar

    BY Amy Luers

    ON August 19, 2013 12:41 PM

    yes. agree there is great value in the preparedness frame for engagement, which is why we use “adaptation” and “preparedness” in this post.  But our point here is not on narratives for engagement but on programmatic agendas.. which moves beyond communication frames.

  • BY Carleen Cullen

    ON August 20, 2013 10:11 PM

    In the article you note, “Many effective policies to address adaptation can, if properly structured, have positive mitigation effects.”

    Our grassroots organization engages kids and parents nationally and has traditionally focused on mitigation.  We have added a small number of preparedness and adaptation elements in the past year.  Anecdotally, the response supports your statement.  I am interested in published literature on this topic.  While we have limited funds for research, experts at Stanford University recently concluded an evaluation of our program (nearly all mitigation), and another evaluation will most likely be a couple of years in the making.  Would you please share literature or other resources regarding measured outcomes about integrating preparedness and its impact on mitigation so we might utilize such in program development and not re-create the wheel? 
    Thank you for this important information.

  • Ellie Johnston's avatar

    BY Ellie Johnston

    ON August 21, 2013 08:00 PM

    Efforts to broaden the agendas of climate mitigation efforts to include adaption, may simply mean that the harder work of stopping our use of fossil fuels will continue to be delayed. The emphasis in this piece on convincing those working on mitigation to expand into adaptation, without equivalent emphasis in the other direction, certainly feels like a call to step back from the long-term work of curbing the worst climate impacts to come.

    I agree that the synergies that do exist between adaptation and mitigation should be highlighted and some may be convinced to mitigate after trying adaptation, but the lions share of the work on mitigation seems like it doesn’t really have strong synergies to adaptation. Shutting down coal plants and implementing policies to cut carbon emissions just aren’t compelling adaptation measures. For all that we heard after Hurricane Sandy from elected officials about disaster preparedness, remarks about mitigation were scant. I’m skeptical people will wake up to the need to mitigate by talking about adaptation. The approach of framing mitigation as something else and hoping for action felt like it was tried with limited success a few years ago with all the talk about green jobs. It seems we just need to call a horse a horse and not dance around the urgent need to implement strong policies to cut our carbon emissions immediately.

    I think that stronger cases should be made instead to find new partners and resources in areas not currently focused on any aspect of climate, rather than reroute or spread out the work within the climate community.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill, D.H.L.

    ON August 22, 2013 11:01 AM

    This Coalition of the Willing animated film shows a vision of connecting the many different stakeholders in the climate change movement with each other. http://vimeo.com/12772935

    This blog shows ideas on leadership and network building that might be applied to building and mapping such a network. http://www.philwillburn.com/

  • BY Mark McCaffrey

    ON August 22, 2013 04:56 PM

    From the perspective of educating the 76 million Americans currently in school to prepare themselves for the future opportunities and challenges, integrating preparedness and mitigation makes good sense; learning the physical science of climate change is important (though often neglected) to being able to make informed climate and energy decisions and preparing for the jobs of the carbon-constrained 21st century, but without solutions or, perhaps more accurately, responses to climate change in the mix, learning about climate change becomes a numbing, overwhelming exercise in dry technicalities.

    Sadly, the lack of philanthropic and private funding and disappearing federal support for climate and energy literacy programs means that these millions of Americans—nearly one in four—are generally not getting the knowledge and knowhow they need to be able to understand and response to the causes, effects, risks and reality of climate change. Teacher professional development is much needed, and while there are promising opportunities—such as installing renewables in schools in California through Prop 39 funding, there is a lack of vision to include with the solar panels and energy efficiency programs the curriculum and support to transform schools into climate safe, living laboratories

  • Bill Henderson's avatar

    BY Bill Henderson

    ON August 22, 2013 06:58 PM

    Thanks for your stimulating initiative, wish you luck in uniting mitigation and adaption communities, but I’m messaging with a couple of points about your perception of climate change.

    We benefit greatly from both the production and use of fossil fuels but, with time lags and inertia, the consequences fall on generations in the future.

    We naturally focus upon the local and temporal but climate change is non-linear;  extreme weather is a good meme but the real danger is from warming in parts of the planet not local and tipping points leading to systems change that will probably be beyond adaption. Search out abrupt climate change or maybe read WINDS OF CHANGE by Eugene Linden or the related books by Kolbert, Cox, and Pearce.

    We’d all love to be able to shoehorn climate change into our comfortable BAU but due diligence to our kids and their kids requires much more.

  • BY Joseph Bute

    ON August 23, 2013 06:04 AM

    I think we need to start talking about extinction.  The whole framework of the conversation has always pushed out the end game in climate change but from the long view we are really in the first or early stages of an extinction period for the species.  We were able to draw attention to species extinction around mammals and other life forms over the past thirty years - why can’t we start discussing our own demise in more graphic and pointed ways?  Once the “tipping point” is reached (and at the current pace that seems to be always coming sooner rather than later with each new round of data collection) it is too late.  I think we are all way to polite here and should really just lay it out in the starkest and most honest terms that we can.

  • BY Michael Schmitz

    ON September 6, 2013 12:02 PM

    Great piece.  It should help move the discussion within the advocacy communities towards a more integrated approach. 

    I would suggest more attention be paid to cities and the efforts of mayors and local leaders to deal with the current AND future effects of climate change.  Faced with real world challenges on a daily basis, and the need to have future planning that delivers in dollars and cents, mayors and local elected officials are engaged in both mitigation and adaptation. 

    More attention by the advocacy community, policy makers, donors and investors should be focused on local efforts to help them scale from important and laudable programs of one city or county to scaled and impactful solutions changing the facts on the ground. 

    On the hopeful front, there is a new initiative seeking to do just this at http://www.resilientamerica.org.

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