Climate Change: to mitigate or to adapt?

June 21, 2016

Written By: Vidya Balasubramanyam, Portsmouth Sustainability Fellow

Asking the right questions

Just yesterday, I read that the South Pole, the last station on Earth that did not have CO2 concentrations at the 400 ppm level, unfortunately ended up reaching it. This is not an isolated incident; it seems that the planet as a whole has transcended the 400 ppm threshold permanently. However, the fact that a location as remote as the South Pole has crossed this milestone is worrying.

This makes me wonder: Is it too late to mitigate? Is adaptation the only way? If so, does this mean that we’ve given up? Should we give up?

These are some questions with which I approach my fellowship for the summer. My placement is at the City of Portsmouth in the beautiful New Hampshire seacoast. My work is split between two projects, and as you’ll see, I’m wading my way through them by asking (and sometimes answering) questions.

Side note: I’m a huge fan of the Socratic method of learning. This method is designed to stimulate critical thinking by asking open ended questions. I use it as a way to unlearn. It’s so easy to be a saturated know-it-all based off of textbooks and the umpteen sources of information out there. But sometimes, it’s good to pause, stow it all away in a corner of your head, and re-start your learning process with an open mind.

How can we adapt?

One of my tasks at the City of Portsmouth is to assist with the launch of a climate change vulnerability assessment of the city’s historic districts. Portsmouth is already at the forefront of adaptation planning with its previous city-wide vulnerability assessment of the impacts of sea level rise and storm surge.

Mechanic Street from Peirce Island, showing (l-r, in the center of frame) the Wentworth-Gardner House (49–56 Mechanic Street, NHL listed) and the Luke M. Laighton House (122 Mechanic Street). Photo credit: City of Portsmouth Historic District Commission (

Zooming into the historic district vulnerability assessment, the obvious question to ask is, “How vulnerable are Portsmouth’s historic districts to sea level rise”?

But the deeper questions I hope to find answers to are, “Which historic structures should we prioritize? Which ones are most important to the public? How are they impacted by different scenarios of climate change impacts: from coastal flooding to salt water intrusion to weathering and erosion of architectural materials?”

My work begins, as all management plans should, with the inventory. Inventorying is the first step in any planning process, and it’s always useful to look at existing documentation and seeking some answers from it. The question I’m asking from the inventory is, “Which structures are the most important in terms of their contribution to the landscape?” ArcGIS has been my best friend this past week in helping me answer this question.

Photo credit: Plan Portsmouth (

A resource that I look to for guidance is Annapolis, Maryland’s Weather it Together initiative. It is a wonderful repository of public engagement and vulnerability assessment strategies. For New Hampshire-based conceptual understanding, I turn to this delightfully comprehensive article that a former fellow shared with me. There was also a conference in Newport, RI specifically about protecting cultural resources from sea level rise impacts. Although I couldn’t attend the conference, their website is a useful resource to guide my research.

Where can we mitigate?

While Portsmouth is certainly gearing up to adapt, it hasn’t quite given up on mitigation. This is my second task: identifying ways to help Portsmouth’s residents recycle better. The more we recycle, the less waste goes to the landfill, and consequently, the lower are greenhouse gases emissions from landfills. Currently, 42 % of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions are from the energy used to take a product through its entire life cycle. Reducing emissions at the grave can mitigate anywhere between 1 to 5%  of the US’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

So, again, I come to this project with a question: “What is the rate of contamination in Portsmouth’s recycling stream?”, also rephrased as “How efficient are Portsmouth’s residents at recycling?”

Answering this question requires a study design, collection of representative samples of trash and recycling, sorting of samples, characterizing the waste, identifying sources of contamination in the recycling stream, and researching strategies to reach out to the public to help them recycle better.

Now for some tips…

From my experience in study design so far, here are some best practices that you might already know about, but are still helpful refreshers:

1. Try to use similar methods that previous studies in your area of inquiry have used. Researchers underestimate the importance of replicability-- often trying to find brand new methods of inquiry. However, replicability is important because data cannot be compared if they are obtained in different contexts. It’s useful to improve previously establish procedures, and seal up the loopholes; but always make sure you have a basis for comparing your findings to those from other communities.
2. Figure out how you’re going to analyze your data before you collect your data. It’s tempting to put this off, but there’s no point collecting data you’re not going to use. While you design your study, also create your data sheet and start filling it in hypothetically. This will tell you whether you need more variables or fewer variables, how sensitive your study is going to be, and where the lines can get blurred.
3. Keep zooming out. When designing studies, it’s easy to get caught up with small specificities. When you’re in a conundrum, zoom back out and ask yourself, “what is my research question? What answers am I seeking from this study?”
4. Build in room for flexibility and improvisation. Often, findings emerge from data by themselves. If your framework is too rigorous, those findings will be blotted out by pre-established assumptions. It’s good to have some breathing space for your data.

Zooming back out (remember tip #3!)

Back to my earlier mitigation versus adaptation rumination: perhaps there should be no “versus”, and both should go on simultaneously—contributing to and feeding off of each other. And perhaps by the end of this fellowship, I can make a strong argument to support this systems thinking approach.

The “best practice” in climate change communication says that articles like these should end with a note of positivity, but I think the exciting projects and challenges that each fellow is tackling at their placement is in itself a beacon of hope for all our respective communities!

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