Competing narratives of environmental change are stalled: It’s time to take adaption seriously
Published 01st November 2010 - 0 comments - 617 views -
It has been a turbulent and excruciatingly slow few years for all people concerned about global change. I say global change because it is not just the climate that we are changing, its global biodiversity, the oceans, the land, and much more, as readers of an article like this are likely to be well-informed of. Climate negotiations have stalled, international treaties have failed to halt the global decline in biodiversity, and international industrial accidents such as the BP disaster (among many others), continue to pollute the natural environment with long-term environmental consequences.
All these crises illustrate the failure of policy frameworks thus far to effectively protect the environment at a global scale. Furthermore where environmental policies do appear to be working on the national scale, they may actually come at the expense of the global environment and thus do little to tackle the systemic problems of our time. This point was put forward strongly by Tony Jupiter in his recent article.
A counter example to the failing of global environmental policies might be deforestation where according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, deforestation has declined from 8.3 million hectares per year to 5.2 million over the last decade. However net deforestation will continue for many years to come, and the continuation of a declining trend is by no means robust given the uncertainty in future policy from major forest owners Brazil and Indonesia, as well as the fact that planting programs currently augmenting deforestation figures will stop by 2020.
Over many environmental metrics we are seeing a worsening trajectory with little obvious reprieve (ozone excluded). In an effort to quantify global changes and look together at many global sustainability factors, a group of scientists convened by the Stockholm Environment Institute, published a paper in 2009 entitled ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’. This set out 9 planetary boundaries that humanity should seek to stick within in order to maintain a steady environment in which humans may prosper. They found that as a planet we are already exceeding 3 of them, these being changes to the global climate, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle associated with the widespread use of artificial fertilisers.
So what am I trying to say by painting this grim picture of our current environmental trajectory?
I am trying to say that we need to be honest about where we are right now and where we are going given our best scientific representations of the future. It seems to be convention in environmental writing to either paint a giddy picture of possible utopia or a pessimistic dystopia. We are all familiar with both forms and may subscribe more towards one than the other for personal reasons.
The first often sets out a very well founded, researched and calculated view of how the future could be with mechanisms worked out in fine detail. For many of these visions to work at the global scale, nothing can happen until everything happens. For example, many such ideas rely on high global carbon price driven by strong international targets. Because of this, action becomes hung up on targets and agreements whilst holding on for the optimum solution. A different version of this is holding out for the perfectly equitable agreement. The Copenhagen Accord has made it brutally clear that this is on the cards and has exposed the harsh world that is global geopolitics for what it is.
The second essentially concludes that things will become so bad that we should all go out and build a fortress today. That our actions cannot or will not make a long-term difference to environmental decline and that we will all be forced to live simpler lives. An alternative to this narrative is that it will not be so bad that we cannot deal with it and that action can be delayed or even scrapped all together. These common narratives seek to halt action all together.
The two narrative groups above are mutually exclusive. They cancel each other out resulting in the first constantly working and waiting for everything to fall into place whilst the second stonewalls any possibility of progress. In the mean time environmental damages accumulate. This takes us no where, in fact it could be damaging as early action counts for more in the long run due to the fact that impacts are cumulative. It also ignores that fact that change is locked in, we will be living in a different environmental world in the future which no amount of negotiation can now stop. To ignore this truism would be a terrible mistake.
I think that a third way must join them, a less hysterical discussion based purely on what we have to work with. We need to start talking seriously about adaptation.
Taking climate change as an example, since the acrimonious collapse of negotiations in Copenhagen last year, talks are widely recognised to have suffered from a lack of trust resulting in slow progress at sessions in Bonn and China this year. The widely touted ‘Copenhagen Accord’ turned emissions targets upside down. Before, the Bali Roadmap set out a framework for targets that were binding, top down and negotiated in line with the science, whereas after coming out, they became non binding and voluntary with no direct reference to the emissions pathway needed. In essence the legal imperative to reduce emissions has gone from negotiations along with the scientific guidance. This understandably has caused controversy, anger and mistrust.
A paper published in the Journal Nature soon after the Accord found that pledges made under it amounted to a ‘paltry’ 50% chance of a 3C warming by 2100, and that even if global emissions were halved by 2050, at best there would still be a 50% chance of exceeding 2C. Furthermore it was revealed later in the year that if the pledges under the accord were to be combined with loopholes under the section of negotiations entitled land use, land use change and forestry, developed countries may in absolute terms be able to increase their emissions up till 2020.
The website climate action tracker run by the Potsdam Institute and NGO Climate Analytics, shows us that at the moment we are heading for a 3.5 degree world. For an indication of what this means take a look at the impacts predicted for such a temperature by the IPCC. This trajectory is unlikely to change soon. At a recent Chatham House conference, Halldor Thorgeirsson director of the Bali Road Map acknowledged that the paradigm of climate negotiations has moved away from one perfect agreement towards a mode of incremental progress. Negotiators also freely agree that no all-encompassing deal with be reached in the upcoming COP16 at Cancun, and that longer term progress towards such a goal in the subsequent COP17 in South Africa is by no means given.
It is also widely recognised that the level of ambition in international emissions pledged is unlikely to rise in the near future. This being primarily due to the fact that for many countries such as Canada and China, the benchmark of their ambition is anchored by the USA’s efforts as the world’s second largest emitter. For the USA, domestic climate legislation (Waxman Markey) has completely failed and so for this presidential term, any mitigation pledges are likely to be limited to what is achievable via Environmental Protection Agency regulation, this being something close to the embarrassing 4% on 1990 emissions by 2020 already pledged by the USA (see World Resources Institute). With politics in the USA finely balanced, no ‘direct’ climate legislation may be possible in the USA for many years to come.
Given the state of global politics as things stand, halting the build up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is not likely to stop soon enough to reach the 2C target, In fact we are most likely heading for a 3 degree plus world given all current trends. Such a change will almost certainly cause massive disruption globally and most of all for the 5% of the world’s population living on low-lying islands that will be displaced if temperatures even exceed 1.5C (for more on this see my blog post). It’s not that such a target is not possible, and it’s not that we should certainly fight tooth and nail for the most ambitious action possible. But we must recognise and act on the fact that we are committed to substantial change as things stand. It’s time to be frank.
The IPCC defines Adaptation as ‘change made by actions taken to reduce the vulnerability of a system to current of future changes in climate’. I would modify the last word to environment. We need to realise the perfect solution might not come and that by planning and acting now we can make ourselves less vulnerable to change both individually, nationally and globally. Adaptation is done with the future in mind and so adaptive actions can also act as mitigation (emissions reductions), for example providing a green electric grid to developing countries. However if mitigation is done without thoughts to adaptation it may fail to be effective as conditions change. For example if new CCS or Nuclear plants are placed at sea level but with 50-100yr estimated lifespans, or if engineered low carbon buildings in hurricane tracks fail to account for increase wind loading in the future and so fail.
By raising the debate about adaptation a more public discussion about our future can be had. This may even strengthen support for stronger mitigation. Never the less, we cannot ignore the ugly state of global environmental trends any longer, it’s time to stop pretending everything will be ok, or that everything will fall apart. It’s time to take adaptation more seriously and plan for our future in a substantially changed world.
About the author
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