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Think or swim: reassessing our adaptation to climate change

Responding to the IPCC’s recent message of ‘adapt to survive’ requires more than bigger dams. Rather than change how we build, we must change how we think, writes Kit Jones

The debate on climate change has probably become boring for most in recent years. Two polarised and entrenched camps with over-rehearsed positions have offered little possibility of progress. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their latest assessment of the science of climate change this spring, they were faced with the unappealing task of communicating to an audience whose minds were made up.

The message − ‘adapt to survive’ − quickly rippled across the world’s media. The lead author of Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability says that climate change ‘isn’t some future hypothetical’, but is happening now. The foregrounding of adaptation should offer an opportunity to move the debate on and may be looked back on as a turning point. Sadly, the reaction didn’t offer much hope for improved public discourse.

Many who were previously sceptical about the science of climate change were attracted to this message. It seems to allow the opportunity to accept the (overwhelming) evidence for the reality of manmade climate change while rejecting any urgency to act. Matt Ridley, for example, writing in The Spectator, made the excited claim that the UN panel had ‘seen sense’ and was now promoting ‘easy’ adaptation strategies over ‘expensive’ mitigation.

In the other camp, some environmentalists have just ignored or rejected the adaptation message. George Monbiot at The Guardian reacted incredulously, ‘What do they envisage? Cities relocated to higher ground? Roads and railways shifted inland? Rivers diverted? Arable land abandoned? Regions depopulated? … My guess is that they don’t envisage anything: they have no idea what they mean when they say adaptation’. For us at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), it’s easy to understand that position: for 40 years, we have argued for concerted reductions in greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous climate change. Now the danger is upon us, accepting that we have failed is hard.

We now must find a workable alternative for reducing the impacts of climate change. Monbiot is right to reject the idea that adaptation is an alternative to mitigation, but he is throwing the baby out with the floodwater in rejecting it altogether.

Current mitigation measures are woefully inadequate and international agreements contain little of meaning. And alongside the stalemate in public debate on the subject, climate advocates are in possession of a topic that seems too psychologically distant in both place and time to excite the public into action. Climate change impacts are associated in the public consciousness with people and polar bears in faraway places most of us will never see, a narrative perpetuated by the media. Any impacts closer to home seem in the too-distant future to be of current concern.

But new research suggests that Ridley’s hopes and Monbiot’s fears are misplaced: thinking about adaptation can actually motivate action for mitigation. In a study published in January, people who were asked to consider local options for adapting to sea-level rise were subsequently significantly more willing to take mitigating action than people who didn’t consider adaptation first. Considering adaptation seems to reduce our perceived distance from climate change.

Adaptation means a positive, proactive response to climate change: including, but not limited to, increased mitigation efforts. It is helpful to think of adaptation measures falling into three broad categories.

Copenhagen Roof

Copenhagen has now installed 53,613 square metres of green roofs - with another 200,000 planned

First, some adaptations are win-wins, reducing emissions at the same time as managing the impact of climate change. They may also have broader, knock-on benefits for biodiversity or human wellbeing. Copenhagen, as an example, has installed an unprecedented 53,613 square metres of functional green roofs in the city and has another 200,000 planned. They hope the roofs will attenuate floodwater and counteract temperature increases from climate change by reducing the urban heat island effect, although detractors claim green roofs increase water demand, making them inappropriate for areas where climate change is likely to increase water stress.

In Austria, EBP architects have taken the growing theme beyond the roof. The Achleitner Biohof building, a food distribution and retail development, has replaced conventional air-conditioning systems with plants. These aren’t just a few random houseplants: they’re a carefully chosen combination, picked to reduce temperatures and designed into the functioning and structure of the building. Rigorous monitoring has shown that not only do the plants reduce room temperatures by two degrees during summer months; they also reduced employee sick days. Reforestation and wetland creation are similarly attractive adaptation measures if used to manage floodwater, and have co-benefits for biodiversity and people’s health, as well as being a carbon sink if done well.

However, while both inspiring and relatively easy to implement, such win-win adaptations won’t be enough to address climate change alone.

Next are maladaptations defined by adaptation scientist Ranyl Rhydwen as strategies designed to cope with climate change that themselves have high carbon implications. Rising temperatures provoke unplanned responses such as increases in energy use when people use air conditioning: this would be a maladaptation. But for Rhydwen, the bigger risks lie in large, ill-conceived urban adaptations: ‘One proposal suggests building a dam from Spain to Morocco to protect Mediterranean coastlines from sea-level rise. Not only would this have a huge carbon cost in its construction, it also stores up risks associated with a breach in the dam’ he argues.


The dramatic flooding that devestated Wales earlier this year, shown here at Porthcawl harbour, has led to plans to retreat from the shoreline

The third category is where adaptation inevitably involves trade offs and sacrifice: finding the least-worst way to respond to changing environmental conditions. The village of Fairbourne, less than 20 miles from CAT, made headlines earlier this year with its plan to retreat from the shoreline. Local councillors are proposing to depopulate the area from 2025. Should we see migration as a failure to adapt, a last resort, or an essential adaptation strategy in its own right? For the people living in the Sahel region on the southern edge of the Sahara, seasonal migration in response to extreme environmental conditions has been an important form of adaptation for years, and climate change may increase the area where sedentary agriculture isn’t possible, increasing the number of people who may find their best or only adaptation option is seasonal or permanent migration. The ability to adapt to environmental changes here will depend as much upon political decisions about migrant rights as the climate.

Herein lies the second mistake made by both Ridley and Monbiot: the interpretation of adaptation as something purely technological. For Ridley, such an analysis absolves the layperson of responsibility and allows us to leave climate change to the experts. Monbiot’s technological suggestions are straw men, intentionally ridiculous because they are dissociated from any politics or human impacts.

But the IPCC has placed the social and political front and centre in this report. They say we need ‘transformational’ adaptation: by their own definition, a ‘change in the fundamental attributes of natural and human systems’. This is bigger than shifting a road or building a bigger dam. Their diagnosis requires a hard look at where the faults lie in our social and political structures. What becomes glaringly apparent in such a pursuit is that at the core of individuals’ or communities’ ability to adapt is their command of particular resources: political power and financial weight at the top of this list.

Sustainable architecture must take on a new role in creating this kind of transformation. Architecture too often simply reflects the influence of power and finance: ostentatious fortresses for an elite against both nature and other people. The alternative is an architecture that connects people and nature: using natural materials, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, bringing biodiversity into cities and adapting to the changing climate. This architecture would not only respond to climate change, but create the intellectual space for a transformation of our relationship with nature, which is what we really need to create a sustainable future.

After years of stagnation, ideas about adaptation are changing the climate change debate. The challenge for urbanists is to adapt the way buildings work and how our cities are designed, but above all we need to adapt the way we think.

About the Centre for Alternative Technology

Kit Jones writes from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales.

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation course will look at the impacts of climate change upon people, ecosystems and the built environment. The course builds on CAT’s considerable experience as a leading voice on renewable energy and sustainable architecture to address the pressing question of how society needs to adapt to climate change, including becoming sustainable. It is the latest in a suite of courses from CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, which also includes a Professional Diploma in Architecture and MSc in Renewable Energy and the Built Environment.

Centre for Alternative Technology
MSc Sustainability and Adaptation
Professional Diploma
Renewable energy and the Built Environment

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