Adapting to Climate Change

Ashok Khosla

Despite growing scientific evidence that our present patterns of consumption and production are leading to massive disruption of the planet’s life support systems, particularly of our climate and our living resources, governments continue to hide their respective heads in the sand.  International treaties have been negotiated to slow down this headlong race to self-destruction, but the foot on the accelerator pedal is stronger than the one on the brake; the biggest polluters continue to be the biggest defaulters. 

Given the long lag times between cause (emission of greenhouse gases) and effect (temperature rise), the global climate is in for change no matter how soon the economies of the world reduce their use of fossil fuels and cutting of forests.  The remnants from 150 years of profligate energy and material use will see to that.  Much of this change, which will in turn lead to changes in rainfall, sea levels, frequency of natural disasters and other unpleasant phenomena is widely considered to be unfavourable, if not outright harmful.

While it is imperative that our scientists, environmentalists and diplomats work day and night to rectify this state of affairs, and bring about global agreements and national policies that will reduce the future causes of global change (i.e., to mitigate them), it is also now necessary to evolve ways to live with and respond to the changes that will inevitably take place because of our past and present practices (i.e., to adapt to them).

How do we redesign our industry, transportation and agriculture so as to make them less vulnerable to the climate changes that will take place?  The name of this game is “resilience”.  Making human activities more resilient takes proactive thinking and advance planning.  Industrial processes have to be made less dependent on resources that will be adversely impacted by the external changes.  Agriculture, including the choice of crops and cropping patterns, has to be redesigned to be resistant to droughts, floods, pests.  Transportation and power generation have to make greater use of renewables. In other words, we have to strive towards sustainable development. 

It is perhaps not surprising that any good strategy for coping with change and disasters is not very different from that for preventing it in the first place.  Adaptation, then, requires much the same types of action as does mitigation – because both depend on the adoption of sustainable development trajectories.  The motivation may be different but the action required is often, and largely, similar.

This becomes all the more important in a world where both population and economic activity can be expected to grow for a long time to come – probably for as long as we continue to have the inequities that characterize the world today.  As we hit against the limits set by nature’s finite resources, we will find it more and more essential to save, reuse, recycle our resources and simplify our lives. 

But this is not a popular insight, either among the affluent whose basic needs are already met or among the poor who do not see why they should be deprived of the things the affluent already have. 

The convergence between mitigation and adaptation is, of course, possible only with the large scale introduction of sustainable livelihoods and sustainable lifestyles – methods of production and ways of living that are more in harmony than those of today with the imperatives of nature.  This means that appropriate technology and the other solutions being pioneered by social enterprises such as Development Alternatives become all the more important, not only for local communities but also for the global economy.


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