Adapting to Climate Change

By Bryan Walker 01/03/2011

Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values, GovernanceAdapting to Climate Change is a reassuring sounding title, but the content of this book makes it clear that there will be nothing straightforward or easy as human communities try to ready themselves for the coming climate crisis. Editors Neil Adger, Irene Lorenzoni and Karen O’Brien have been doing on research in the area for a number of years and worked closely together in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on adaptation. They convened a conference in 2008 at the Royal Geographical Society in London and the resulting papers are the basis of this book, now published in a paperback edition.

It’s the social and political dimensions of adapting to climate change that the book is mainly concerned with. The 31 papers are grouped around the three headings which form the sub-title of the book: Thresholds, Values, Governance.  The thresholds chapters consider a variety of situations.  One paper looks at how human modification of ecosystem services, as in agriculture, can reduce adaptation capacity, suggesting that building ecological resilience may be an important contribution to successful adaptation (and mitigation). Another considers the potential engineering adaptations to protect London from flooding across the thresholds of stages of increase in sea level rise, emphasising the need to be prepared well in advance for the trajectory of the risk; 5.75 metres is considered the end point for engineering adaptations. The puzzling extinction of the Norse Greenland settlement in the 15th century which figured dramatically in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse is the subject of a paper. It suggests a different conclusion from that explored by Diamond, but certainly some threshold factors, whatever they were, put an end to what appears to have been a successful centuries-long adaptation. In present time the capacity of an Inuit community in Arctic Canada to adapt to major changes in their ice environment raises threshold questions not only about the physical challenges, but also the impact on their cultural and community life.

The papers which discuss values are often a reminder that adaptation is undertaken by communities of people with cultural values and human rights that not only need to be respected but may also be the source of important input into the adaptive processes. One paper looks at a community of alpaca herders in the Peruvian Andes threatened by glacier retreat and the associated availability of water — their collective orientation and concern with continuity rather than economic growth is apparent in their discussions about how best to manage their future. Interviews with elderly people in the UK about their perception of and coping strategies for hot weather revealed how difficult it can be for many of them to perceive their vulnerability and think of being proactive in relation to heat waves. Another paper asks what an agricultural community does when it becomes apparent that building resilience to climate threats may mean moving away from short-term technological fixes and settling for a lower production level and lower returns. A flooding event in Boscastle, Cornwall is examined in a paper which suggests that there were adaptive strategies well understood by local people in the past which subsequent development of the village overlooked, leading to flooding consequences that might have been much less serious if the local knowledge had not been lost.  Relocation may be a possible, if drastic, adaptive response and one of the papers explores why that option was taken by some in drought-stricken Oklahoma in the 1930s and rejected by others. In general this section of the book digs away at the cultural factors which guide people as they make difficult decisions and changes, and the relative flexibility they display.

The values considerations impact on the governance issues associated with adaptation. One paper argues that adaptation must go beyond the laundry lists of potential options and constraints and beyond simplistic assertions that technology, information and money will sufficiently serve the purpose; the social dynamics of governance structures must also be understood and examined. Another paper reports a scheme in the Brazilian province of Ceará seeking to enable local participation in adaptation to drought conditions and to bring those marginalised by the prevailing patron-client governance into the public arena where their voice can be heard directly and the planning process thereby made more effective. Planning for adaptation to changing coastlines raises large governance questions as to how the people profoundly affected by coastal erosion and flooding can be properly engaged in the difficult decisions ahead, an issue addressed by one paper in relation to England’s east coast. On an international level cooperation between states in transboundary water management is already important and will only become more so as climate change progresses, an issue explored by one of the papers. The governance of adaptation funding for developing countries is a question of great importance for those countries and a chapter looks at the need for efficiency and fairness and responsiveness in the administration of that funding.

The book is not one of cheering examples of successful adaptation efforts, or of prescriptions of future adaptation measures. If there are prescriptions indicated they are more concerned with the underlying social and political factors which will need to be part of effective adaptation. It’s not a simple matter of applying the right technology or the correctly chosen course of action to achieve the necessary changes. That will be part of the picture, of course, but it is people and communities of people who have to adapt, and try to hold on to what they value as human beings and cultural groupings as they do so. The social sciences come into play and this book gives an indication of the wide front on which social researchers are operating and what their understandings have to offer. It’s an impressive array. The papers are specialised and directed mainly at researchers, policy makers and practitioners. However they are not inaccessible to the general reader prepared to pause and dwell on their substance and consider the implications for the massive social undertakings of adaptation.

There’s no triumphalism in the book. Adaptation is going to be a shaky process, and there must be real doubt about our capacity to achieve it in some of the situations in which it is required. Indeed the prospect, if fully appreciated, is surely a further spur to trying to prevent the extremes of global warming which lie ahead if we continue to exploit fossil fuels. The editors certainly don’t present adaptation as a substitute for preventing climate change in the first place. It will be challenge enough trying to adapt to the changed conditions which will accompany the 2 degrees of warming our politicians say we are setting as an upper limit. Adaptation to the 4 degrees of warming which we are actually on course for beggars the imagination. One fears that in that event the thoughtful explorations of issues represented in this book may be thrown into disarray by pressing urgencies of survival. There’s every reason to keep insisting that our political leaders get real with mitigation.

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