No Regrets Adaptation Actions: STOP SAYING THAT!

By Shaun Martin, WWF-US

For the past two years, I have on occasion encountered the term “no regrets” being used to describe adaptation actions that will ostensibly solve everyone’s problems.  Unfortunately, “no regrets” has led to many regrets when it comes to building understanding and buy-in for true adaptation. It is one of those terms that people use in different ways in multiple contexts and is therefore misinterpreted by others based on their own understanding of “no regrets.” My advice? STOP SAYING THAT!

I first came across this phrase while participating in a discussion on climate change adaptation for freshwater. Given the great uncertainty of long-range climate change projections for precipitation, a “no regrets” adaptation option was one that would be useful in both drier and wetter conditions. That didn’t make sense to me when I heard it because I couldn’t think of any solution that would serve such a purpose, and no one provided one. This understanding of “no regrets” is similar to the definition that proposes “no regrets” adaptation interventions are ones that create social benefits under all future scenarios of climate and impacts. A very tall order indeed.

Since then, I have seen “no regrets” used in other ways. A common interpretation states that a “no regrets” option is one that makes sense whether or not a projected change in climate actually materializes. A variant on this suggests that “no regrets” options are ones that will work independent of the degree of change (which could be interpreted as, “plan for the worst-case scenario”).  Still another interpretation is an action that costs no more than what you planned to spend anyway. In the conservation world, it is often used to advocate for nature-based solutions and soft or green infrastructure. I have also seen “no regrets” in the context of solutions that provide “co-benefits” or ones that useful for both adaptation and mitigation purposes.

My purpose here is not to argue with the good thinking behind the development of these “no regrets” activities, or if such solutions actually exist, but rather to point out the very term itself has led to unintended consequences and that we would be better off if we avoided using it in the future. As I meet with people to talk about their adaptation work, I have discovered that more than a few have concluded that taking the easy path is one that leads to no regrets. That is to say, when you tell someone to take actions that makes sense whether or not projected changes materialize, that cost no more than what you have to spend, that work for everyone in all situations, that are simply green alternatives, then too many people wrongly assume “no regrets” is license to continue to do what you are already doing. In the worst cases, some are simply repackaging their existing work as adaptation.

What is missing from their logic is the due diligence necessary to determine if proposed actions will actually stand the test of time and climate change. The fact is, when using any of the proposed criteria to define noregrets options that actually help reduce vulnerability to the effects of climate change, there are very few, viable no-regrets actions we can take. However, you would never know this by talking to people who have misinterpreted this guidance. Everything suddenly becomes a possibility.

At first, it might seem using the term “no regrets” (and similar terms like “win-win”) would help lower barriers for those resistant to adapting, but it has unfortunately led us in the direction of potentially avoiding the serious discussions we need to have around trade-offs. Climate change will result in both winners and losers (or more likely survivors and losers). Difficult questions must be asked.  What do we value most?  What are we willing to sacrifice and when? So called “no regrets” actions imply that we can save a lot with little or no extra cost by continuing down the path we are already on.  There will almost always be regrets for somebody, somewhere no matter how hard we try.

So what should we be saying? I have seen at least one attempt to temper the ill-effects brought on by the use of the term “no regrets” actions by calling them “low regrets” actions. A bit better for sure, but I have a feeling this will serve us no better than other attempts at switching the use of seeming harmless phrases to better alternatives after that cat was out of the bag. Think of “safe sex” to “safer sex” used in the public health sector, or “global warming” to “climate change,” for that matter.

What we are really looking for are “optimal” solutions, ones that maximize benefits while minimizing negative consequences. In fact, some formal definitions of “no regrets” are exactly this, but unfortunately no one provides definitions when speaking and many times when writing. Optimal is a word that says what it means. “No regrets” regrettably does not.