Looking back on the future

A new book deals with the psychological, cultural and practical changes many believe will be necessary to avoid climate catastrophe – or, if it’s too late to avoid it, to advance strategies of adaptation. That doesn’t mean to just shrug and say “let’s make the best of it”, but rather to embrace – as an accompaniment to ever more concerted emissions reduction – planning for a world that is changing drastically, as Envirotec discovered.

Abandoned car after hurricane
The small, localised responses thrown up in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina might offer examples to follow for climate adaptation.

For all the efforts that have been made to cut emissions over the past 20 years, there is clearly a strong and widespread sense that things are not moving fast enough. Some commentators in the sustainability sphere report a dawning realisation that climate change can no longer be simply “solved”, in the sense of it being possible to slow it down to a degree that will allow our civilization to continue in a more or less recognisable form.

Obsessing over the conventional talking points – whether or not we should cut emissions by 2050 or 2030 and so on – or what we might term “mitigation”, is no longer going to cut it, they say. It’s time to pivot to a response that prioritises adaptation.

Recent history of an idea
Adaptation was once viewed as an unhelpful distraction from the main focus of securing emissions reductions. That changed in 2010, when the IPCC began a more concerted appraisal of how societies and economies could be helped to adapt to a world with a less stable climate. Soon afterwards, a knowledge sharing effort began under the auspices of the UN Global Adaptation Network.

Since then, the term has gained currency in the climate community, and financial support. In 2018 the World Bank and others agreed significant funding to help governments boost the resilience of communities, including things like the Green Climate Fund, intended to provide support for lower income countries. This typically includes things like helping small-scale farmers cope with weather variability by introducing irrigation.

In July 2018, the concept of deep adaptation first appeared, in a seemingly landmark paper published by UK sustainability academic Jem Bendell, which – though only intended for people working in the corporate sustainability field – went viral, with over a million downloads. It recommended a more realistic appraisal of the dire progress being made on climate mitigation, and a call to radically rethink mainstream approaches.

It doesn’t imply lessening our efforts at cutting emissions, and sequestration, as another academic Rupert Read explains in one of the essays in a new book, Climate Adaptation: Accounts of Resilience, Self-Sufficiency and Systems Change (the focus of this review), “but implies that the effort to meet those aims within the current system must pragmatically be considered likely to continue to fail to significantly reduce atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases.”

A fair COP?
“The Glasgow COP is going to fail us,” writes Read. Appearing at the launch of the book in Glasgow on 30 October, he spoke about the measures that might constitute a successful – or at least not completely disastrous – COP, in his estimation, as well as the unlikelihood of these conditions being met in the agreement, and how environmental activists ought to respond, if the morning of 11 or 12 November brings an unhappy feeling. There will have to be some recognition of the fact that our leaders have failed us, he said, and that needs to be “an occasion for embracing adaptation”.

While the word still seems freighted with ambiguity (or at least to me), Read is clearly at pains to distinguish it from its “shallow” variant – what the IPCC calls “incremental adaptation”. He picks up the theme in an essay in the book called “Dodo, Phoenix or Butterfly?” – the avian analogies in the title clearly intended to signpost three possible destinies for mankind in the not-so-far future, which also correspond somewhat with what he sees as three known variants of adaptation.

Three possible trajectories
“Dodo” is the term used for the worst possible outcome: A complete, terminal collapse of civilization, and is where he suggests we are headed if we only favour incremental adaptation, which he says is “worse than useless on its own”. So, simply building higher sea walls and flood-proofing buildings won’t cut it – we need to combine such measures with attempts to tackle the causes of climate change in a radical way. And we should be wary of politicians talking about adaptation in the manner of Australian premier Scott Morrison in 2020, as a prelude to abandoning or watering down mitigation.

“Phoenix” – another possible outcome – is still a civilizational collapse, but with a subsequent renewal or rebuilding effort – a new civilization rising from the ashes, as it were, although we should be under no illusions that this “comes on the back of immense suffering and difficulty”. This is the place where adherents of “deep adaptation” believe we are now headed, and is the outcome Read regards as “by far the most likely”.

Deep adaptation seems to involve an acceptance that our civilization is simply going to be swept away by the pace of climate change, and it deals with how we might prepare ourselves psychologically and practically for dealing with that outcome.

Societal collapse doesn’t seem to necessarily mean the end of everything, though, as in: the breakdown of law and order, and the sort of Hobbesian world depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Bendell’s 2018 paper defines it as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, shelter, security, pleasure, identity and meaning.”

The third possible future to which the essay title alludes is “Butterfly”, whereby we somehow avoid civilizational collapse and manage to pivot towards a new civilization through deliberate, intentional change. It is the most ambitious orientation clearly, and one that Read and others have been hoping to popularise under the banner of “Transformative Adaptation”, or TrAd.

“This requires a willingness to undertake major psychological adjustments away from what has been ‘normal’,” writes Read, and is based on “fundamental system change”. While the IPCC already uses the similarly worded concept of “transformational adaptation”, Read explains that “what is meant by this phrase is often more modest than what we have in mind as TrAd”.

As a concept, TrAd seems to be currently under construction but could be said to embody all the most radical and visionary possibilities the human imagination can possibly muster to meet the challenge of climate change.

As a book exploring this territory – and it seems one into which professional sustainability publications have made few incursions as yet – Climate Adaptation deals primarily with climate change as it is experienced by those at the sharp end, including accounts from different parts of the world – primarily the Global South. In that sense it is intended to fill a gap in the market for books on climate change.

Drought in Kenya
In one essay, Fazeela Mubarak, a conservation volunteer in Kenya, writes about an ad hoc response to droughts in March 2017, which involved a frantic struggle to restore water and food supplies to animals in the region. She provides a brisk account, starting from the moment she first noticed footage on social media of hippos struggling in the mud.

Initial successes prompted further exploration, and an odyssey unfolded. As she writes near the beginning: “Little did I know that this was just a small taste of what was to come in the next 45 days, and that it would take me to the heart of it all and change everything I had ever known about nature.”

Traditional forms of knowledge and ways of relating to nature are a recurrent theme in the book. “Areas of the Earth under indigenous stewardship feature far more robust biodiversity,” as Janis Steele notes in her essay “Stories from the Blue Continent”, which seems to explore some of what might constitute the more intimate and constructive relationship with nature that lies behind such trustworthy stewardship.

Her work with an NGO on the Pacific island of Vanuatu has made her mindful of what might seem an incommensurable cultural and psychological gulf between indigenous groups and the formalities that perhaps hold sway in a modern, western-dominated forum like COP.

At a recent meeting of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network in Fiji, climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner discussed the importance of better equipping local activists to take a seat round the table, and to acquire greater fluency in concepts like mitigation and adaptation. She described COP as “an abusive space” for people from the Global South or any disenfranchised minority group.”

“I honestly don’t love how often militaristic language gets co-opted to discuss the climate movement, and yet the cruelty of the COP negotiations space brings these similarities to mind.”

“Emotions get shelved, and though you may be fighting for the survival of your country, you must deliver your interventions calmly or you lose the floor.”

Apocalyptic scenarious are not new to Pacific islanders either. For residents of an island like Banaba, already lain waste by phosphate mining since 1900, the climate crisis can be understood as just the latest instalment of a colonial project, “the culmination of all the effects of resource extraction”.

A gulf of ontological differences may also have to be bridged. As Steele writes, the Pacific island countries don’t view themselves as small island states, but rather as “large ocean states”, and see themselves as “custodians of this vast region’s rich marine life and ocean health”, a position laid out by Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele in 2017, when he spoke of “a blue continent” and its role in shaping the country’s culture and identity. Policymaking about the region should take account of its ocean geography and identity.

On the island of Moso, Leisavi Joel is chair of the Havannah & TasiVanua Environment and Climate Network. When she plants a mangrove stem on the shoreline or ropes a coral fragment into a nursery, writes Steele, “she is not (or not only) exercising and implementing adaptation strategies, but is simultaneously revitalising and innovating what it means to be a Ni-Vanautu woman confronting a crisis.”

Tarawa is an atoll and the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, one of a number of “large ocean states” in the region, which is located in the central Pacific Ocean.

Sinking fortunes
A resident from the island of Kiribati made history in 2012 as the first person to apply for asylum on explicitly climate-change-related grounds, and the possibility of “climate refugees” seems to have gained a place in journalist’s priorities, not necessarily helpfully. On the other side of the world, the Welsh village of Fairbourne is sinking into the sea and has been essentially abandoned to this fate.

In 2019, the BBC reported that it had only 10 years left. “Perhaps this was due to a misreading of the shoreline management plan or an attempt to create an eye-catching headline,” as Isobel Thomas-Horton writes, in an essay on Climate Migration. In any event, the effect was a 40% drop in house prices overnight, leaving many of the townspeople more stranded than before. The essay wonders if the term “climate refugee” is accurate or helpful, and compares the respective fates of those so described in both Fairbourne and Kiribati.

The book also seems a relative novelty on the sustainability bookshelf for its handling of systemic change, with essays that seem to venture boldly into attempts to reimagine finance, food production and other areas.

As Steven Gorelick notes in an essay on “Localisaation vs Globalisation”, COP member states have consistently failed to cut CO2 emissions by the amount needed. “The only effective dips to emissions have been due to economic slowdowns,” in 2008 and in 2020 as a result of the Covid lockdowns.

This points to a simple truth: “The fastest and most reliable way to reduce GHG emissions is to make fundamental changes to the economy.” The big question is: How to do this “without enormous social and economic costs?”

The global food system accounts for around 19-29% of GHG emissions (estimates vary), a tally that owes much to globalisation and industrialisation, with its wasteful, transport-heavy propensities, and reliance on soil-degrading, chemical-heavy monocultures. There is also much more processing and packaging involved.

The essay explores the benefits and possibilities for advancing local food economies, and concepts like regenerative agriculture.

There’s a lot to digest in the 300 pages of Climate Adaptation, but it is informative and mind-expanding, giving a sense of the field’s scope and revolutionary import.

Climate Adaptation: Accounts of Resilience, Self-Sufficiency and Systems Change is published by the Arkbound Foundation, and costs £9.99.