Mitigation & adaptation explained

September 8, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

This spring, when schools had closed due to the pandemic lockdown and online learning was the new thing for school-aged children, I had my own taste of what that may be like. As a mentor of a 13-year-old through Big Brothers Big Sisters, I sat with her several times at the end of May and June, when it had become safe enough to extend our social bubbles and sit around my dining-table. I learned what grade seven French, math and science looked like nowadays. 

While I managed to dig up and apply my past school French and existing math skills, I was pleased to find that her science assignment had to do with climate change. Aha, I thought, this will be a breeze! It was easy enough for me to answer the required questions myself, though explaining to a child what mitigation and adaptation meant and how they differed, in a way that she could understand and then explain herself, was quite another thing. 

I explained both with real examples that would make sense to her, and which we find ourselves in right now. The first one was about flooding. To mitigate basically means to reduce the severity of something. When, for example, you know that a river floods after every heavy rainstorm, you build bridges, dams and drainage accordingly to protect the land, roads, infrastructure and homes. To adapt means to adjust to something or change, in this example it could mean adjusting to recurring floods by building your house on a small hill or stilts, including protective walls and more drainage options on your property and using building materials that are solid and won’t rot. Or not building on a floodplain in the first place. 

Another example, while not related to climate change, is the current coronavirus pandemic. Mitigation in this case, i.e. to reduce the severity of its impact, includes enforcing quarantine rules, lockdowns and physical distancing to reduce or curtail the spread, ongoing testing to identify virus carriers and hotspots in a community, and providing ongoing and up to date education to the public. The adaptation we have also been experiencing and following (for the most part) are increased handwashing and sanitising, walking and cycling more to stay off public transit, avoiding crowded places, not hugging and wearing facemasks. Finding a vaccine to prevent or reduce future infections would fall into the category of prevention and having effective medication to cure the onset of illness would be a treatment.

With regards to my little sister’s homework, I think I did a good enough job explaining these two terms to her and think ‘we’ got a decent grade. Aside from my surprise at the challenge of grade seven science, the necessity of mitigation and adaptation have never been clearer to me than this summer. Still amidst a pandemic and constantly adapting to updated safety rules and fears, we are now also experiencing effects of climate change with heatwaves and what those bring. 

At the end of July, four new record high temperatures were set already in Alberta and the Maritimes were sweltering too. Ottawa had the hottest July since 1921, with 18 days above 30°C, including three days that broke high-temperature records of over 35°C. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported June as the third-hottest June on Earth in recorded history, tied with June 2015, in what is a persistent warming trend. Warm temperatures from January through to June have pushed the year 2020 to the second highest in their 141-year climate record. That is not a record to be proud of. 

The Caribbean, South America, Africa, New Zealand, Finland and Norway also saw record temperatures in June.  Australia was even drier than usual and in the western USA, Arizona already had its fifth-largest wildfire ever. These increasing temperatures affect human health, wildlife and our food crops. From 1998-2017, around the world more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves. Deaths are by no means limited to poorer countries that may be lacking the right infrastructure. During the 2003 heatwave in Europe, 70,000 persons died there because nobody has air-conditioning (World Health Organization). Exposure to heat and heat-related illness is increasing due to climate change.

We can adapt by staying indoors more and keeping cool with air-conditioning, provided we have it, can afford it or have access to public spaces that can act as cooling-centres. Or we can adapt how we build our homes, so that indoor temperatures stay manageable more naturally. For example, the German Passivhaus design is not only extremely energy-efficient and almost carbon-neutral, its smart design and materials use shade and insulation, as well as cross-breezes and air movement inside a home to keep it cool through design, not air-conditioning units.

Larger numbers of heat-related illness also stress health and emergency services and increase strain on water, energy and transportation, which can result in power shortages or blackouts. Food security and farmers’ livelihoods are also strained if people lose their crops or livestock due to extreme heat and drought. In terms of climate change, we can certainly adapt in many ways, though we have a whole lot more to do by way of mitigation and prevention. And right now, we are facing a double whammy of dealing with climate change, as well as a virus pandemic. Oh man, I think I need another ice-cream to get me through this… 

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