Climate mitigation vs. adaptation: What is the difference?

3 min readFeb 2, 2022

In my previous article, I shared my intention to dedicate time and energy to the topic of climate adaptation and disaster. There are many resources out there — most are scientific reports and policy documents as all countries are developing their climate adaptation strategy. To make this important topic more accessible, I decided to summarise my learnings in a series of easy-to-understand articles, stories and case studies.

Let’s start with understanding the concepts of climate mitigation and adaptation, two different ways to respond to the climate crisis.

What is the difference between climate mitigation and adaptation?

You might have heard of the two terms. There are many definitions out there, and most reports use the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a reference. But to make it simple, I want to use a metaphor:

Imagine you are on a boat that’s sinking. Water is pouring in from a leak, and you need to act fast to stay afloat. The most important thing you should do is find a way to seal the leak to avoid more water coming in. This strategy is called mitigation, and it addresses the root cause of the problem. After that, you can grab a bucket and get rid of the water that poured in through the hole and is risking sinking your boat. We call the response to addressing the effect of the problem adaptation.

Photo by Ahmed Zayan — Unsplash

Applying this to the climate crisis means that mitigation is about reducing emissions and enhancing the sinks that sequester and store greenhouse gases. Adaptation is what we do to adjust to the effects of climate change so that we can live with it and minimise the destruction, injustice and suffering.

Here is an easy overview of the main differences around the two strategies that I outlined:

A table with the differences between mitigation & adaptation. Climate mitigation is about reducing our emissions to avoid the negative impact of climate change, the focus is on a global scale and the global north has the highest emissions. Examples are clean energy, sustainable transportation etc. At the other hand climate adaptation is about adjusting to the actual and expected effects of the climate change and to reduce vulnerability. The focus is local and on the Global South.

Note: Some interventions, such as water conservation, education and nature-based solutions (wetland restoration, etc.) address both strategies.

Apart from a better understanding of the two terms, what I want you to take away is the following points:

1. Mitigation comes first

If we don’t want to sink, we need to demand action on the climate crisis. We can try to adapt as much as possible, but if we don’t address the root cause and fix the hole in our boat, we will sink. For that to happen, we need to understand the real root causes. Maybe it’s not the leak but the way the boat was produced in the first place. An economic system that values growth above all else is probably more damaging than plastic straws.

If it feels overwhelming to tackle this task, know that you are not alone. Get involved, share the word, demand action, take action. If you don’t know where to start, here is an article that helps you start a conversation within your company. If you look for inspiration on an individual level, I recommend the Climate Optimist website.

2. Let’s get prepared

You probably hear every day about extreme weather events: floods, storms, heatwaves and fire. The consequences of the climate crisis are here and will get worse in the foreseeable future. As Henry Neufeldt, chief editor of the United Nations Environment Program’s Adaptation Gap Report, puts it:

“Adaptation is necessary even if we stopped emissions today.”

But we don’t hear and know enough about how we can prepare our families, communities and businesses to deal with these adverse events. How we can take the learnings from the Global South, who have already been disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, and use them in our context. How can we make sure climate adaptation is just and equitable?

For more answers on these questions, follow my series of articles and content to explore the topic of climate adaptation. I’m also curious to know what you want to hear more about — just share your questions and interests in the comments.
Thank you 💛

Thanks to Joshua Stehr for the feedback & input.




I’m a freelance strategic designer with a focus on resilience and climate adaptation —