We live in a world where the climate has changed and will continue to change. In order to limit catastrophe and create positive futures, we need to transform our foundational systems to meet this reality. Because solving the climate crisis requires deep coordination across multiple stakeholders that are spread out across the globe, we can’t assume that we will meet our climate targets and must plan for systemic transitions. Not only do we need to work to mitigate the more extreme possibilities of climate change, but we also need to build the capacity for adaptation and resilience in the face of an expanding climate crisis. The economy that allows us to meet these needs is called the adaptation economy. The adaptation economy is the sum of the work needed to make sure that the Earth remains livable for existing biological systems, while also ensuring the adaptability of human systems in a less than livable future.
Note: This paper is a synthesis of many concepts and frameworks that have emerged in order to conceptualize paths forward through the systemic crisis. Organizations and ideas such as a Climate Justice Alliance, Transition Network, Resilience Cities Network, Deep Adaptation, Schumacher Center for a New Economics, the Post Carbon Institute, and the Capital Institute have influenced many aspects of the Adaptation Economy. Our goal is to create a meta-framework that can be used to align the work across disparate sectors of systems change, creating a “big tent” approach to responding to climate change and creating regenerative futures.
Many human and natural systems are at a breaking point. Economic crises, war, deforestation, changing weather patterns, species loss, and climate-induced migration are only a handful of the problems humanity is currently facing. The contemporary conditions are something that we must account for as we attempt to scaffold new future-proof systems. We aren’t just heading towards crisis, we are currently living with the consequences of crises. Ever-expanding extraction has devastated people, communities, and ecosystems for centuries. The majority of biospheres on the planet are no longer intact, no rainwater anywhere is considered safe to drink, and wildlife species populations have declined by an average of 68% in the last 50 years. The fact that we can project these problems getting worse speaks to the horror of what we are facing. Consuming as much as we can as fast as possible has proven a poor long-term survival strategy, even if it has created enormous financial wealth and technological progress in the short term. We clearly need to work to build alternatives and fast.
When we imagine transitioning from our current reality to a regenerative future, we often overlook the fact that the systems we depend on for our basic needs are the key drivers of ecological degradation. When looking at carbon dioxide emissions, for example, we see that roughly 2/3rds of all emissions come simply from the ways in which we eat, transport, power, and house ourselves.  Looking beyond carbon emissions, it’s obvious that the demands our economy places on the non-renewable inputs such as phosphorus, nickel, and lithium require planetary-scale extraction. Stated another way, the core infrastructure of our society demands a toll from earth systems that cannot be sustained. What are we to do if the current ways we sustain ourselves diminish the Earth's future capacity for life?
It is clear that our collective mission must involve building an economy that provides for our basic needs without relying on destructive extraction and pollution that damages communities and ecosystems. The adaptation economy recognizes the harm that has been caused by the fossil fuel accelerated extraction economy and seeks solutions that repair this harm, while also building a new economic base. We believe that regeneration and rematriation, the restoration of a people to their rightful place in sacred relationship with their ancestral land, are core principles of this transformation. The change we are seeking must focus on repairing the degradation of both societies and ecosystems if it is to be sustainable over the long term. If these aspects are neglected, the resultant societal and ecological collapse would make other efforts irrelevant. Capturing carbon wouldn’t matter much, for example, if a significant percentage of the world’s population becomes refugees due to soil erosion. Repairing the harm of our current economy is a primary focus of what is known as the Just Transition, an idea that people harmed most by extraction economies should be the first to benefit from regenerative ones. Rematriation is a response to the specific harm of colonialism and genocide of indigenous peoples that have happened globally. It is also an acknowledgment that indigenous societies steward a significant portion of the biodiversity that remains on the planet. We believe that rematriation is not only a way to be accountable for historical harm, but also a viable pathway toward ecological stability and renewal, and can serve the broader goals of the adaptation economy.
The adaptation economy is a “yes and” economy because it requires a patchwork of solutions to be implemented to be fully realized. There is no single Climate Solution - but there are climate solutions that are powerful in aggregate. The adaptation economy seeks to weave these solutions together toward climate stability and a better-than-livable world. The good news is that many people across the world are tackling the diversity of problems and needs that exist on our planet. Regenerative and sustainable solutions are emerging at a breakneck pace globally. The challenge lies in our ability to discover, scale and spread these solutions as rapidly as possible. We lack a coherent framework to understand what’s being built, what needs to be built, and where we need to innovate. This framework can help us identify Sensitive Intervention Points - points in a system that can have an outsized effect, and lead to systemic change. Seeing the whole picture can guide us towards holistic solutions, rather than the myopic alternatives that currently plague us due to our economic model, e.g. creating meat alternatives to mitigate emissions from beef, but requiring industrial soy that depends on ecosystem disrupting herbicides.
The framework of the adaptation economy focuses on four key aspects: Mitigation, Capacity, Adaptation, and Resilience. Mitigation is focused on slowing the rate of global warming and stopping environmental loss. Capacity is about creating the societal well-being and cohesion necessary to be able to respond to shocks and crises effectively. Adaptation focuses on the transitions we need to make to live in the context of a changing climate and ecosystem loss. Resilience is about increasing our ability to return to normal after a shock or crisis occurs
In order to prevent the most devastating consequences of climate change, we need to quickly repair the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel-based extraction economy. Our goal is to sink the gigatons of CO2 required to stabilize the climate in the future. It is estimated that there are roughly 2000 gigatons (1 gigaton = 1 billion tons) of excess CO2 in the atmosphere; this is roughly 50 years of emissions at current levels. The excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn’t just the result of burning fossil fuels. The extractive economy has led to soil degradation, land use changes, and the loss of ecosystems such as wetlands and forests. These have all contributed to the increase in CO2. A lot of work has been done to define exactly how much CO2 we need to sink and what percentage of ecosystems we need to restore to be able to stabilize and eventually reverse global warming. These analyses can help us understand the scale of the impact that we need to achieve, and offer us a myriad of pathways by which we can have a meaningful impact on our climate targets. Tactics such as improving soil quality, reforestation, and ecosystem restoration are all extremely important avenues of intervention when it comes to mitigation.
Another avenue of mitigation is the cessation of the emission of CO2. To achieve this, we need to decarbonize our fuel sources so that they don’t continue contributing to worse climate outcomes. This means that we must remove the use of fossil fuels from our entire economy. This is no small feat because the modern economy has been scaffolded on exploiting cheap and abundant fossil fuels. The annual global demand for fossil carbon is just above 10 billion tons a year. More than twice the water drunk annually by the world’s nearly 8 billion human inhabitants. Furthermore, there are roughly 1.2 billion combustion engine vehicles on the road globally, and there were only 3 million electric vehicles sold in 2020. There were an additional 80 million combustion vehicles sold in that same year. Tesla, the leading electric car manufacturer, is on track to produce just over 1 million electric cars in 2022 and has already achieved a 26.5% increase in production over last year. Based on these numbers, electric vehicle production would need to scale ~2666% just to be able to meet the yearly demand for new vehicles globally. It is clear that decarbonized transportation solutions won’t be based on the actions of individual consumers, but rather on the building of infrastructure that can efficiently transport people and goods without the use of fossil fuels.
Looking at energy generation, decarbonizing our energy system is a hopeful possibility for mitigation because the cost of renewable energy is rapidly becoming competitive with fossil fuels. Renewable energy is becoming a viable economic development pathway for lower-income countries globally. While fossil fuel and carbon emission mitigation must be a focus of the adaptation economy, it is important to note that it will still not address the excess CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere or the negative impact it is expected to cause. Carbon Dioxide Removals (CDRs) will also need to figure into any mitigations strategies. CDRs remove CO2 from the atmosphere, through methods such as the growth of organic matter or chemical reactions, and store the removed gas permanently in different forms. However, the scale of CO2 reduction required to ensure we don’t pass the 1.5C carbon budget is enormous. The IPCC states that we need 6 GtCO2 of CDR per year by 2050, which is more than the weight of all petroleum currently produced.4 Thus, mitigation, including the cessation of the use of fossil fuels and CDRs, cannot be the total focus of our strategic planning toward a livable future.
In order to be able to respond effectively as a society to emergent shocks and crises, we must build community capacity that allows people to respond even as the underlying context becomes more unstable. If communities are mired in poverty and lack access to resources, the chances that they will have the necessary tools to respond capably in a time of need go down significantly. Examples of this can be seen in past environmental disasters. The aftermath of mega-storms like Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The areas that were the poorest were the most impacted and slowest to rebuild, with the most vulnerable unable to mitigate the damage to themselves and their communities. Globally, it is understood that some of the worst effects of climate change will be first felt by the poorest populations. Drought and soil erosion have already led to the migrations of subsistence farmers within the global south, and it is expected that these conditions will not improve in the coming years, leading to even more economic instability and migration. We must not forget that the carbon-fueled economy has led to enormous disparities in wealth and access globally, with roughly ~46% of people worldwide living on less than $5.50 a day. Mitigation and adaptation efforts must happen globally but must be developed hand in hand with the collective capacity to ensure that economic and social desperation doesn’t lead to the further degradation of ecosystems and a lack of ability to coordinate further action. We believe it is possible to ameliorate the global capacity and development imbalances by prioritizing the building of local regenerative infrastructure within communities.
Prioritizing community-based climate solutions is synergistic with increasing our collective well-being and reaching our climate targets. The adaptation economy is by its nature distributed because the capacity of communities everywhere must be increased to be able to respond to current and future needs and probable crises. Localities must become less dependent on global supply chains for their economic needs because they are energy intensive and are highly vulnerable to disruption. A lingering question here is how we build local capacity and self-sufficiency while also maintaining global coordination. The framework of “think globally, act locally” feels like a good place to start, but more work will need to be done to define what this means in practice at community and global scales. The adaptation economy requires new models for ownership and access that are less centralized and more flexible to be able to respond to local needs in dynamic ways. Brittle institutions that presume stable global conditions will not be able to respond quickly to rapidly changing conditions. This might mean that existing policies need to be amended or changed to facilitate the scale of transformation necessary. The adaptation economy views community-based climate solutions and regenerative infrastructures as the backbone of adaptation and resilience.
The infrastructure that we build in the coming decades will need to be based on a long-term view that is based on not only a changing climate but also new political and economic relations. To be clear, the global conditions we experience now are not the ones we will experience over the next decades. If our systems are not built for adaptation, we will be left at the mercy of these changing conditions, and the most vulnerable among us will suffer the most. Therefore, the building of adaptable systems becomes the utmost priority at the local level. If we begin to assess local needs based on the resources available and the evolving ecological context, we can create adaptive systems that respond adequately to predictable shocks. The question that each locality must ask itself is what conditions are expected to become more pervasive as the climate and ecological conditions worsen, and how can we adapt our systems to meet this challenge? If we know that a place will be susceptible to “wet-bulb” events, combinations of heat and humidity that make our bodies unable to cool themselves. We should assume that there will be enormous energy demand from air conditioning that can potentially lead to grid failure. It would be good planning to move away from air conditioning units towards technologies like heat pumps that use less energy and are more efficient. Adaptation requires a focus on localism due to the context-specific changes that are required in each place to ensure long-term livability. Approaches to adaptation in one place will often be meaningless in a different context. One outstanding question is how can we foster best practices between places with similar needs in order to cultivate the best practices? Not everyone will deal with flooding, forest fires, droughts, or thawing permafrost, but some communities will face similar challenges globally. Creating pathways that are based on shared learning and experimentation through collaboration appears to be a viable adaptation strategy.
Adaptation will require not only the creation of new infrastructure and systems but also the cessation of unsustainable practices. By examining specific examples, we can see what adaptation might look like. Population centers that are in arid or semi-arid regions and rely on watersheds that are hundreds of miles away should seek to create water management infrastructure and policies that create more local water autonomy with less external dependency. This might look like rainwater and fog harvesting, household and community level cisterns, and stopping water use for non-critical or decorative uses such as golf courses and lawns. Population centers that are at risk of damage by coastal storms and hurricanes should build and reinforce the infrastructure that mitigates the potential damage from wind and waves. This might include sea walls, wetland and mangrove restoration, stormwater management infrastructure, and moving construction activities farther inland. Adaptation is based on an analysis of likely occurrences in a destabilizing climate. Building infrastructure and systems that can respond to and mitigate these changes must be a priority, however, this does not account for the unpredictability that can be inherent to complex changing systems.
Creating plans, processes, and infrastructure that allows us to quickly recover from acute shocks and crises is a critical aspect of bolstering collective resilience. As the climate and ecological contexts change, it is likely that many localities will experience acute crises. The unpredictable and unplanned nature of these events makes them hard to account for: all we can do is make sure our systems are resilient in response to them and able to return to pre-shock functionality quickly. Ecological shocks are broadly expected to increase in frequency and/or strength within the coming decades. With this knowledge in hand, we can begin planning for the interventions necessary to make communities more resilient. How might we rebuild houses quickly after a natural disaster? How do we make roads less susceptible to flooding? How might we construct fireproof infrastructure? How might we augment our disaster response mechanism to swiftly mobilize resources to needful communities? The answers to these questions will require many innovations and a lot of coordination to be fully realized.
Ecological shocks are not the only type of disturbance communities are likely to experience in the future; economic shocks are increasing in frequency as well. Our economy currently depends on long commodity chains spread across an increasingly unstable world; any shock along these chains affects our ability to source what we need when we need it. Some recent examples of this are the case of Ukraine, which provides 40% of the World Food Program’s (WFP) grains supply. Every WFP-dependent country and community is being adversely affected by Russia’s war on Ukraine as a result. Our critical systems can’t be so dependent on single points of failure if we are to adapt to a climate-changed world successfully. A drought in California shouldn’t inherently affect food supplies across the rest of the United States; a spike in oil prices from an illegal war shouldn’t affect our ability to transport people and goods efficiently, and at an economically viable cost; port shutdowns in China shouldn’t inherently constrain our access to the base materials we need for manufacturing and production. Globalization has created more economic integration across borders but at the expense of less local resiliency. In this context, building for interconnected self-sufficiency becomes a central goal. How do we make as many population centers as self-sufficient as possible, while also creating linkages that can mobilize aid in disasters? Resilience is inherently a multi-dimensional outcome that will require collaboration and coordination at every level of society. Thankfully a lot of work is being done to make communities more resilient, and we can build on this work going forward as the shocks and crises become more prevalent.
Focusing on Mitigation, Capacity, Adaptation, and Resilience can guide us towards effective action that solves the complex global problems we are facing. Working at the local level allows us to make meaningful positive impacts on people's lives while also affecting planetary issues. We must acknowledge and celebrate that we are building across a diverse set of geographies, ecosystems, and cultural contexts without one size fits all solutions. Moving away from a perspective of “this or that” towards one of “yes and” can help us build the diverse network of solutions that gets us to the future we want.
Affecting multiple aspects of the adaptation economy simultaneously allows us to have a more efficient impact over time. In permaculture, this principle is called stacking functions; it states that every element should serve multiple functions, which creates maximum output for minimum input. Because the scale of our current problems is so large, making our interventions as tactical and effective as possible is crucially important to sustain our resources over the long term. The adaptation economy posits that it is possible for us to mitigate carbon emissions while also building community capacity and resilience. Solutions that can do this should be prioritized with investment and resources. How many different interventions can we find that put this principle into practice?
Our dependence on fossil fuels is woven through every system that sustains us. This fact has implications for how we feed, shelter, and power ourselves. Eliminating the dependence on fossil fuels and carbon emissions of our foundational systems must be a priority if we are to transform society towards regeneration. By focusing on foundational systems, we can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives while also meeting our climate targets. Food, energy, and housing make up 45% of the average household’s expenses, with this factor increasing for lower-income people and are the source of almost half of all global emissions. This makes them excellent systems to implement the principle of stacking functions.
Our contemporary economic model has been defined in large part by the dominance of multinational corporations. This form of economic organization has diminished the power and vibrancy of local economies globally. Products are assembled and built across long supply chains with little accountability to local communities at each step. This model has been enormously successful at producing consumer products that are not user or community-specific. Millions of iPhones get made with coltan from the Congo and Chinese labor at Foxconn factories without the vast majority of people having any awareness of the details and footprints of this process. This allows for an unprecedented accumulation of value at the top of the commodity chain but isn’t an effective model for distributing equal economic value to all participants. We think a more equal distribution of resources is a requirement for building resilient communities. The adaptation economy is accountable to local communities because there is no one size fits all solution across geography and cultural contexts. There needs to be a diverse tapestry of interventions made by and for the people that will live with the outcomes. Community-based climate solutions create a mechanism by which we can distribute value to local people, improve community resilience, and meet our climate targets. This is not to say that there won’t be global trade of some variety, but rather that the focus of where value accrues shifts away from consolidated multinationals towards a kind of distributed localism.
When it comes to the distinction between non-market based vs market-based solutions, we think a diversity of tactics is important to accelerate the transition away from the extraction-based economy. This is another example of the adaptation economy being about “yes and'' rather than an “either-or.” This is not to say that profit motives within certain industries cause perverse outcomes and undesirable outcomes. One such example of this is farmland which has increased in price in the US by 4% year over year for the last 20 years. This has led to a lack of farmland access for small-scale organic and regenerative farmers while favoring the extractive economies of industrial agriculture, which is petrochemical-dependent and ecologically depleting. This situation is untenable if we want to meet our climate targets because large-scale agribusiness is a huge contributor to carbon emissions. Non-market solutions such as land trust and farmland commons can help us achieve our collective societal and ecological goals in this case.
However, it is unlikely that nonmarket solutions will be able to affect every part of the economy that needs transformation. Market-based incentives have led to the increased availability of sustainable products across many industries, and we expect this trend to continue. To truly achieve a regenerative future, the entire supply chain of key industries must be assessed. If we want more solar panels, electric vehicles, or heat pumps, then we need to be aware of the raw materials required, the requirements of the production process, and how these products will eventually be disposed of. Market-based solutions are emerging to augment these systems to be sustainable in ways that non-market-based solutions can’t. When we take a systems perspective, we recognize that our desired outcomes are best achieved by a diversity of tactics rather than by monolithic approaches. Fundamentally, we should incentivize organizations and businesses that are accountable and operate in ways that don’t perpetuate historical models of extraction.
One outstanding question is how do we know that we are making the right decisions towards the goals of the adaptation economy? Currently, most frameworks for systems change are based solely on idealized targets. The UN’s SDGs gather collective outcomes we want to achieve, such as “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns,” “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all,” or “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” But these types of frameworks lack guidance on the implementation details that will lead us to these outcomes; this includes more thorny questions of access, ownership, and organization models. Questions like: “who owns and controls the energy systems that deliver clean power?” or “who controls the food systems and underlying land?” often go unanswered. If we don’t adequately define our desires and outcomes, there is a possibility of creating structures and relationships that cause harm in unforeseen ways. By only focusing on the what and not the how we miss an opportunity to broaden our understanding of what can and should change about our contemporary economic model. Is it worth it to sink carbon if we don’t also deal with societal inequality? If we sequester all the carbon from Shell and Chevron’s petroleum products, without repairing the harm to the waterways and forests of Nigeria and Ecuador, are we really achieving our adaptation goals? Building a methodology to evaluate our interventions is critical to us being able to iterate on potential solutions and address root causes effectively.
Thankfully, there has been enormous work done to create methodologies to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of organizations and businesses across many different sectors. Methodologies such as Equity-Centered Community Design, Social Movement Investing, BCorp Assessment, the Global Steering Group for Impact Investment, the Global Impact Investment Network, and the Impact Weighted Accounts Project can help us to understand best practices and quantify social impact across industries. By leveraging these existing tools, we can quickly scaffold an implementation framework for the adaptation economy by prioritizing the existing business and organizations that rank high on these various lists or metric sets. We can use them to evaluate the solutions we discover across the entire economy. Taking an intersectional approach will help us determine which businesses and organizations will help us get to our desired outcomes quickly but can also help determine which of those businesses and organizations we should prioritize because of their other socially beneficial effects. For example, we want to support organic agriculture, but we also want to support the farms that treat their workers the best. Most metrics don’t report on such multifaceted concerns, which means that we will have to evaluate our decisions across multiple methodologies. In the current economy, it is completely possible to buy organic produce from a farm with labor rights issues because there is no way for consumers to ascertain this type of information. The adaptation economy’s implementation methodology seeks to account for this information asymmetry by evaluating multiple metrics sets for each intervention where possible. Additionally, not all methodologies will be applicable to all interventions, but by piecing together the relevant evaluations, we can better understand the outcomes we want and the manner by which we hope to achieve them.
The framework of the adaptation economy is nascent but is based on deep experience with complex systems, climate change research, and community activism. This framework must constantly evolve to remain effective, as we become more knowledgeable about what we are trying to achieve and as the underlying global context shifts. It is impossible to predict what is going to happen over the coming decades, and what the resultant macro conditions will be. We think that mitigation, capacity, adaptation, and resilience are good places to start when strategizing about how to transition away from the extraction economy to one that is regenerative and restorative. This framework serves as a high-level synthesis of insights derived from numerous perspectives such as Project Drawdown, Deep Adaptation, and a Just Transition. We hope that it serves as a kind of “big tent” where a broad set of expertise, perspectives, and insights can be leveraged to create positive alternatives to our contemporary reality. We look forward to engaging people in developing this framework as we build toward fecund futures.