A set-up designed to create biogas from cow manure

Adapt or avoid?

We will need to adapt to cope with the impact of climate change – but is there more we can do?

Responses to climate change generally fall into two categories:

  • Adaptation: Learning to live with climate change and its effects.
  • Mitigation: Trying to do something to stop it happening.

Some degree of adaptation is essential, as we are already experiencing climate change and its effects on our health, and further changes to our climate are inevitable – even if emissions are controlled. The need for adaptation is likely to be far-reaching, affecting the locations of population centres (away from coasts or flood plains), building design (resilience to flooding, heat control), water and crop management, and public health systems (see our ‘Public health response’ article).

Is adaptation enough? The consensus is no: without mitigation, the scale of change would simply be too great.

The main focus of mitigation has been the control of greenhouse gas emissions. Science and technology are widely seen as providing solutions, offering sustainable energy production and improved carbon management.

For example, methane production by farm animals is a surprisingly large contributor to climate change, and systems are being developed to use waste methane as an energy source. Biofuels are a possible alternative to fossil fuels, though their eco-friendliness is questionable, particularly if they threaten food production or lead to the destruction of natural habitats.

Government policies encouraging increased biofuel production using maize have recently contributed to higher food prices for many, argues the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report. The result, it says, has been increasing food insecurity for populations already at risk, and a threat to the livelihoods of vulnerable groups, such as the urban poor.

Agricultural research is developing crops that are more productive or more able to thrive in difficult climates, using conventional plant breeding approaches or genetically modified (GM) plants. The use of genetic technologies has raised fears about their ecological impact and about the control of agriculture by large corporations.

Out-there ideas

The impact of climate change is considered so serious that global-scale ‘geoengineering’ solutions may be necessary. These might include cloud-producing ships, reflectors in space to block out the sun’s rays or simply planting new forests. They remain a controversial idea, though, as unanticipated effects could have disastrous consequences.

Lead image:

A set-up designed to create biogas from cow manure.

Robert Basic/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Biotechnology and engineering
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development