Until recently, the world’s response to inevitable climate change was based on producing ever more precise forecasts of what would happen locally – running ever more sophisticated climate models to generate data on the climate in Bamako, Mali in 2040, for instance – and then working out how to “adapt” to the change. While ever bigger super-computers with ever more sophisticated climate models still attempt that, there is a growing realisation that we will never know in any detail what is coming down the track.
Some generalities emerging from the models may hold. Wet areas will generally get wetter and dry areas drier. Most of the world will be warmer most of the time. The extra energy in a warmer global climate system will tend to create more climatic extremes of all sorts – more storms of course, but also sudden cold spells, droughts even in wetter areas and worse floods even in the driest. A defining feature of future climate is likely to be the greater unpredictability of day-to-day weather, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2014 “fifth assessment” of the impacts of climate change. It noted: “Responding to climate-related risks involves making decisions and taking actions in the face of continuing uncertainty about the extent of climate change and the severity of impacts in a changing world.” Or as report co-chair Chris Field put it: “The future doesn’t ever turn out the way you think it will be. Being prepared for a wide range of possible futures is just always smart.”
And that means that engineered adaptation is not always a realistic option. We simply won’t know what we are adapting to. Creating engineered structures to protect people will be difficult, expensive and often either impossible or a waste of money. This new perspective suggests a different approach. Rather than an engineered response to known threats, it suggests paying much greater attention to ensuring our world is more resilient to whatever surprise a changing climate system may throw at us.
Thus the new report ditches past estimates of the impact of climate change on African rainfall patterns and crop yields – a yield reduction of up to 50 percent as soon as 2020 was one spectacular claim in the previous assessment, published in 2007. This time there are no headline grabbing statistics but the more measured – and arguably more useful – statement that “climate change will amplify existing stress on water availability and agricultural systems” in Africa and will “very likely reduce cereal crop productivity”.
There is also emphasis given to how climate risks, though pervasive, are just one of a suite of challenges facing poor communities in particular “in a complex and changing world”. It says that “climate-related hazards constitute an additional burden to people living in poverty, acting as a threat multiplier”, but that “vulnerability is rarely due to a single cause.”
Building resilience to climate change, therefore, needs to be part of wider systems of responding to a range of economic, social and environmental risks; one that places emphasis on natural ecosystems which grow and adapt to changing environments, rather than physical structures, which cannot. And that means that maintaining and regenerating natural ecosystems is often the most effective way of reducing the number of people and livelihoods that are in harm’s way.
The IPCC report calls in particular for reforestation and, in coastal regions, for “increased mangrove, coral reef, and seagrass protection”. As one former IPCC author, Colin Thorne of Nottingham University, puts it: “The best hurricane protection is three kilometres of mangroves.” Meanwhile farmers can build their resilience against floods, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes, by planting more climate-tolerant seed varieties, by enhancing wetlands, floodplains and lakes, by terracing hillsides, and by opting for farming systems such as agroforestry. This report makes the case for addressing ecosystem degradation as one of the root causes of risk and vulnerability and for opting for ecosystem-based solutions as a way to reduce disaster risk and build community resilience. It focuses on water-related hazards in particular, as they make up a vast majority of risks, and are often exacerbated by inadequate water and natural resource management.