Mitigation vs Adaptation: The Before and After of Climate Change Policy

Have You Ever?

Imagine you’re taking a nature walk with your friends Adir and Gil. The three of you come across a river and happily watch driftwood and leaves flow downstream. But wait a minute: some small critters are trapped in the water! You start rescuing the squirrels, birds, and rabbits, but the stream of helpless creatures doesn’t stop. Adir suggests that you all walk further upstream and see what’s causing animals to get swept up in the first place. Then, they reason, you can prevent critters from ever falling in. Gil, meanwhile, wants to double-back the way you came to get a big net - then you’ll all be able to scoop up more animals from the river faster.


Both approaches tackle the problem, but from different perspectives. Adir’s suggestion would strike directly at the cause while Gil’s plan focuses on the effects. Since they’re dealing with different parts of the problem, they’ll have different consequences. Following Gil’s net strategy might save more animals, but it could also prolong the issue and cause more critters to get swept into the river. On the other hand, listening to Adir might prevent more animals from falling into the river, but also, the animals that do fall in could get injured or drown. The cause-oriented and effect-oriented plans highlight the difference between mitigation and adaptation, two approaches to climate change.

Mitigation vs. Adaptation

Mitigation is reducing the severity of climate change by preventing or minimizing factors that cause it. Meanwhile, adaptation is reacting to the direct impacts of climate change by preparing for the changes it’ll bring.

How It Works

In other words, mitigation is all about stopping harmful activities, and adaptation is dealing with the consequences of those activities. So global treaties on reducing carbon emissions are focused on climate change mitigation, while plans for city infrastructure that can stand more intense weather conditions would be climate change adaptation.

Mitigation tends to be talked about more in the global sphere and adaptation more in the local sphere. This makes sense, given what they’re both trying to accomplish. To truly tackle the root causes of climate change, large groups of people need to agree to change their lifestyles. To bring down global emissions, we need the world to work together. For renewable energy to become the norm, everyone has to agree to use it over fossil fuels. Because prevention methods are most effective when millions of people commit to those methods, international efforts concerning climate change have historically been mitigation-focused.

Adaptation, meanwhile, will be different for each region. Places near coastlines are rightly concerned about rising sea levels and potential flooding, while agriculture-rich areas are focused on preventing extreme temperatures from wiping out crops. Therefore, coastal communities may choose to invest in building a sea wall while a farm town may opt for genetically modifying crops. Furthermore, adaptation doesn’t rely on the group efforts of nations to be effective. One town can adopt its own adaptation plan that’s specifically tailored to their community's needs and then implement it. Thus, cities and municipalities tend to be the strongest advocates for climate change adaptation. 

Why Care?

What conversations about adaptation and mitigation frequently miss is that this isn’t an either-or situation: the two often go hand-in-hand. To fix a problem, you need to address its source, but you also need to clean up the mess it created. If we’re going to successfully solve climate change, both mitigation and adaptation efforts must be taken.

This is especially important to keep in mind in national discussions. From an economic sense, policy-makers are incentivized to focus on adaptation: it focuses on the local areas and has clear benefits. But without nations prioritizing mitigation, too, our entire globe is going to be in danger. We have to urge those in power to make and enforce green policies while we assess the changing needs of protecting local communities. It’s only with mitigation and adaptation that we can truly combat climate change.

Think Further

  1. How can you convince your national government to implement mitigation efforts?
  2. Why do you think discussion surrounding climate change is often framed around mitigation or adaptation rather than mitigation and adaptation?
  3. What are some examples of mitigation efforts you’ve heard of in the news? Adaptation efforts?


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Learn More

  1. COP23. “Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience: The Three Pillars of the Response to Global Warming”. COP23, Bonn, 2017
  2. IPCC. “Topic 4: Adaptation and Mitigation”. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Report Fifth Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2021.
  3. Schumacher, Ingmar. “Climate Policy Must Favour Mitigation Over Adaptation”. Department D’Economie, Route de Saclay, 15 February 2016, 
  4. NASA. “Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation”. NASA Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, Earth Science Communications Team, 25 March 2012,
  5. WWF. “What’s the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation”. World Wildlife Fund, 2021,