Issues Magazine

Let 10,000 Adaptation Projects Bloom

By Terry Clayton

There is ample evidence to convince many that climate change is occurring. Reducing greenhouse gases remains important, but we had best start thinking harder about how we will adapt to the coming changes.

Public awareness of adaptation, as opposed to mitigation, is only just beginning to dawn. There are at least two reasons for this. For the past 20 years, the discourse has been about greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the leading global body on climate change, actively resisted any discussion of adaptation for fear that this would distract people from the more important task of mitigation.

Following their lead, the media has focused almost exclusively on emissions-related issues. Mitigation has been so popular a topic that a former US Vice President won a Nobel Prize for a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.

Failure to reach any kind of agreement at the global climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 (COP15) dashed hopes of capping carbon emissions anytime soon. At the meeting in Cancun in 2010 (COP16), the UNFCCC grudgingly opened the door a crack to admit the many special interest groups that have been advocating more action on adaptation for some time now.

The second reason why adaptation hasn’t been picked up by the media in a big way is that we have been doing it so long and so well that they don’t yet see it as newsworthy. They will.

Our species is the new kid on the block, and we have done remarkably well at adapting to our environment. It’s taken us a mere seven million years to walk upright and adapt to life on open savannahs, in tropical rainforests, dry deserts, hot deserts, on shorelines and mountain tops. Humans just keep expanding into new niches.

We even invent new niches in the form of virtual worlds defined by language and abstract symbolic systems we call cultures. Cultures, with their social norms, political systems and economies, have allowed us to expand our numbers far beyond the carrying capacity of natural ecosystems. Zooplankton and insects aside, there are few species that number in the billions.

The recent rise of cities can be seen as an adaptation, in a non-biological sense, to our growing numbers. In Green Metropolis, David Owen argues that people in cities individually consume less oil, electricity and water than their rural cousins. There is no reason we can’t go on like this indefinitely, provided we can meet the next big challenge posed by climate change.

Up until recently, our climate has been a constant we haven’t had to think much about. So constant has our climate been over the past 10,000 years that generations of agriculturalists learned to determine planting and harvesting times from the behaviour of birds, insects and natural phenomena. Andean potato farmers used to climb to the top of a nearby mountain at each winter solstice to observe the constellation of stars known as the Pleiades (or, in some locales, the Seven Sisters). If the stars were big and bright, farmers would plant at their usual time. If they were dim, they expected late, sparse rains and delayed planting.

Today we call this accumulated encoding of observation folk wisdom or indigenous knowledge. Scientists are inordinately proud of themselves when they finally figure out, using billions of dollars worth of satellites and high speed computers, that the perceived brightness of the Pleiades are a function of the relationship between El Niño and high cloud cover. It’s a pity that the more privileged discourses on adaptation don’t include more potato farmers.

Meanwhile, this 10,000-year interlude of climate stability that geologists call the “interglacial” gave us free rein to experiment with our virtual worlds. Over the course of our very short history we have invented tribes, kingdoms, empires and nation states as forms of governance. To facilitate our exchanges we have gone from barter to metal coins, paper money and finally strings of ones and zeros that we encode on plastic cards and transmit through the air.

Over the past several centuries, so many of our species have so completely inhabited various virtual worlds that we have forgotten our ties to nature. We see nature as something external, something to be subdued, controlled and most of all used to satisfy mostly artificial needs and wants. Climate change reminds us that we are part of nature and there are planetary boundaries we cannot ignore, no matter how stubbornly we might deny them. A framework of these planetary boundaries within which humanity can operate safely has been outlined by Johan Rockstrom, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, along with colleagues from 30 institutions worldwide. Whether or not we choose to respect these boundaries will be decided over the course of the next 100 years. The most well-known limit, the one most literate people are aware of and take a position on, is the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

The fact that carbon is what keeps our atmosphere warm has been known for 100 years. Only recently have we realised that it can also cause our atmosphere to be warmer than is good for us. While the global discourse of mitigation has certainly increased awareness of this fact, it has done little to decrease the level of carbon emissions or to bring governments to any consensus on action.

Despite the dire warnings and hand-wringing of scientists and environmental activists, it looks as if we will continue pumping carbon into the air until some clever guys in a garage somewhere invent cold fusion in a bucket of tap water. We are currently at 385 parts per million and rising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) thinks it is quite probable we will see 450 parts per million or more by 2050.

Others think the IPCC forecast is conservative. New York University Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has a remarkably successful record of predicting political outcomes for the CIA and other serious clients, has forecast continued heavy carbon emissions by developing countries. The underlying logic is easy enough to understand. Rich countries can afford to reduce carbon emissions by investing in “green” technologies. Developing countries have no affordable alternatives to fossil fuels and very powerful incentives to do whatever it takes to improve the quality of life of the people they govern or, in many places, try to keep under control. As Bueno de Mesquita points out: “Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades.”

Alternative energies? In Power Hungry: The Myths Of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, Robert Bryce argues that coal and oil will continue to be the cheapest sources of energy available for a long time to come.

Even if we could put the brake on carbon emissions today, there is enough evidence to convince most thinking people that it would be prudent to expect some changes in climate. Just looking at the data on polar ice and Himalayan glacier melt should be enough to persuade most people that something unusual is happening.

So, what do we do while the UNFCCC gabbles on about mitigation and tinkers with their new bureaucracy for a global adaptation fund? Should representatives from developing nation governments go hat-in-hand to endless COP sessions begging for money?

Mr Lumumba Di-Aping, then Chair of the G77, tried that at the COP15 in 2009. He asked if developed nations were prepared to spend as much on saving the planet as they spent saving their own banks. The recent billions spent on bailouts and bankers’ bonuses on both sides of the Atlantic would seem to indicate that they are not, or at least not in a hurry.

The G77 estimated that something in the order of US$400 billion annually is needed to prepare developing countries for climate change (four times the current UNFCCC estimate). When asked how that money should be spent, Mr Di-Aping could not say and became rather angry at the implied suggestion that he ought to. But even if the UNFCCC isn’t the only game in town, is it a game worth playing?

For game-changing ideas, read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, an Oxford-educated Zambian economist. Moyo argues rather convincingly that development aid both weakens governance and further impoverishes people in poor countries. African governments, she claims, could find money for development through financial markets, both international and domestic.

Although Moyo doesn’t specifically address funding for adaptation, there is something appealing about the idea of countries bootstrapping themselves out of poverty. The idea is doubly appealing because many of the things we need to do to alleviate poverty would also make communities more sustainable and resilient to external shocks, including climate change. At least it appeals to me, because I don’t think we are going to get the “coordinated” or “concerted” action that UN bureaucrats and development gurus keep calling for. People just don’t work that way.

People and societies actually work more like ant hills, termite colonies, food chains and electrical grids. What those very different things all have in common can be explained with complexity theory. There is no boss in an ant colony. All the queen does is lay eggs. Individual ants work out for themselves what it is they should be doing by interacting with other ants using no more than a dozen chemical and tactile signals. From these interactions, a higher level of organisation emerges and the colony is more organised than its individual constituents.

Sociologist Jane Jacobs showed that cities exhibit similar behaviour. For instance, no one planned the internet. It grew all on its own, but it exhibits the classic features of a small world network like the neurons in our brains and the relationships in ecological food webs.

I suspect something similar is happening with the thousands of adaptation initiatives currently underway all over the world. Let 10,000 projects bloom and see what emerges. It’s already happening, and we should embrace it.

All the big international non-government organisations (NGOs) have ambitious plans for saving the planet. In addition to lobbying for reductions in greenhouse gases and general awareness-raising, they do get involved helping people in mostly poor and marginalised communities to plant trees, diversify crops, prepare for floods and droughts, and save species from extinction. This is all good work, and a great many people are better off for it.

Like many of the public and private Western funding agencies that work with them, they see development, poverty alleviation and adaptation as part of the same problem. This makes good sense, and we have lots of good models to work with. Some will work, others will not.

Let’s give the NGOs, the private foundations, scientists and anyone else who thinks they have a good idea the money they need and see what they do. Let the people most affected decide what works.

There is ample evidence that people in the private sector, not just the NGOs, are taking climate change seriously. Big multinational companies have 25- and 30-year strategic plans because they plan to be in business for a long time to come.

Climate change is seen both as a risk and an opportunity. The risk is that climate change threatens reliable supplies of raw materials and markets. NGOs and environmentalists by and large remain sceptical of the good intentions of the private sector and take great joy in shaming companies they feel are trashing the environment for profit, but business does have a stake in safeguarding water supplies, mitigating desertification and protecting biodiversity. An influential McKinsey report published in 2009 warns business that, “Huge value is at stake. The winners will be companies that reposition themselves to seize the opportunities of a low-carbon future.”

The Barilla Group, The Coca-Cola Company, The International Finance Corporation, McKinsey & Company, Nestlé S.A., New Holland Agriculture, SABMiller plc, Standard Chartered Bank and Syngenta AG formed the 2030 Water Resources Group to “contribute new insights to the increasingly critical issue of water resource scarcity”. The group sought inputs from more than 300 experts and practitioners of leading scientific, multinational and non-profit institutions including experts from the International Water Management Institute (a centre of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), the World Wildlife Fund and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

One of their main conclusions is that the way government institutions perform is at the heart of water sector reform. At present, too many are performing as isolated sectors or for the benefit of their political masters. The role of the private sector is to make financial investments that act as levers for change, such as economic incentives that reward efficient use of water, and by investing in technology hubs, research and education to unlock innovation.

Water is a wise choice of topic. If mitigation is about greenhouse gases, adaptation is about how we use water.

Australia provides many good examples of what governments can to do to move people towards adaptive behaviour. To start, there are few cities in Australia that don’t have a comprehensive water conservation program.

Many cities, like Melbourne, go beyond simple restrictions by encouraging citizens to take part in water surveys to learn about their water consumption and then receive tips accordingly to save more water. In Victoria, when schools sign up for the Water Efficiency Program, an evaluator comes to that school and does an analysis of how well the teachers and students are addressing water conservation opportunities, then gives a report with suggestions to help improve their scores.

Cities and towns are also including water- and energy-saving measures into local building codes. Many municipalities now offer rebates for homeowners who install rainwater-harvesting tanks.

Changes in water availability as a result of climate change will have a significant impact on how water is managed at the regional level as well. Based on forecasts from climate models, scientists anticipate a significant reduction in water availability from the Murray–Darling Basin. Their plans for the “equitable” allocation of water, including water for environmental services, may be rational and scientifically sound, but it is hard to sell.

In a survey by the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, 1500 farmers were asked about climate change. One in five don’t think it is a serious problem.

A better strategy than beating people over the head with facts they don’t want to hear is offering carrots in the form of economic incentives. In May 2010, Tony Burke, then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, announced an innovative drought reform program for Western Australia. The government will help farmers resettle if their land is too arid by providing an exit package of up to $170,000. If they choose to stay, the government will help them prepare for the future through Farm Business Adaption Grants of up to $40,000 for activities that will help farm businesses to manage and prepare for the impacts of drought, reduced water availability and a changing climate.

Anywhere you care to look you will find good and bad news on climate change, cause for alarm and bright spots of hope. Of one thing I am sure: humans will adapt to new climatic conditions, however harsh: not because the world came together to implement international treaties on emissions; not because the United Nations forged a global strategy on adaptation; and not because somebody at the top got everyone coordinated. Humankind will adapt because that’s what we do.

The best, if not the most elegant, strategy would be to let 10,000 adaptation projects bloom and get behind the ones you think will work.

Terry Clayton’s chosen adaptation strategy is to live in a small farming community in north-eastern Thailand. You can send comments to