Adapting to the unknown

By this stage of the conference, many participants seemed to feel that the emotional roller-coaster had many more downs than ups.

One, a woman in her early thirties, told the conference that she was feeling smug: 'I don't have any children and many of my friends don't want to have children.' I leave the reader to think through the implications of this declaration. One participant, who is a parent, reported that his thirteen-year-old daughter had said we just have to accept the reality of climate change and deal with it, a mature understanding that most adults are a long way from grasping.

One way or another, humans will have to adapt to life in a hotter world. Many plausible scenarios suggest a sharp decline in the number of people that will survive in the long term. Some suggest a billion or a few hundred million will remain in a century or two, but one guess is as good as the next. One thing is certain: the transition to some new stage of stability will be long and brutal, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable whose survival will be threatened by food shortages, extreme weather events and disease. Yet in a world that is now densely interlinked, everyone will be affected profoundly. More autonomous financial systems ought not to be too difficult, but untangling trade networks and returning to a more autarkic world seems from here to be almost inconceivable. Yet shortages and more expensive transport might impose it on us.

For many, only by moving will they survive. It is sometimes said that people will migrate before they die, but in truth people frequently die in large numbers before they have the impetus or means to move. Nevertheless, the volume of migrants heading north into Europe and the United States—not to mention southern Europeans looking to resettle in more hospitable northern climes—could easily overwhelm the capacity of those states to regulate and accommodate it. François Gemenne, a

French expert on migration patterns, told the conference that most migration due to environmental factors has in the past been internal rather than across borders. And it will not be easy to separate climate migrants from those moving for other reasons; or rather, climate impacts are likely to aggravate existing problems, which makes it difficult to estimate numbers. While most migration today is voluntary, climate extremes are likely to make more and more of it forced. Gemenne pointed out that migration flows do not always match the peak of an environmental crisis because relocating permanently requires resources that, in times of drought, for example, need to be devoted to immediate survival. The poorest and most vulnerable often lack the means to migrate, so migrants are more likely to be those who are better off. Gemenne believes that governments will need to encourage and facilitate the migration of the most vulnerable. One severe typhoon now could kill everyone on Tuvalu, yet the residents are understandably reluctant to move. In rich countries, too, people are often reluctant to move after surviving a severe flood, a hurricane or an intense bushfire, even when experts warn that catastrophic events will become more frequent.

Some low-lying islands are expected to disappear under rising seas by the end of the century. The membership of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth) seems likely to shrink from 54 to 50 or 51.4 Gemenne suggests that this will demand innovation in international law, so that people can remain citizens of nations that no longer exist. Tuvaluans living in New Zealand, Australia and Fiji may hold passports from a 'virtual state' under the Pacific Ocean. (Perhaps we could call them the 'New Atlanteans'.) Can such a ghost nation remain a member of the United Nations and protect the interests of its citizens?

Humans are generally conservative creatures, finding it easier to hope for the best than prepare for the worst. We are at a stage where few accept that climate impacts will become severe. Most believe they can adapt to some known shift in climatic conditions, and that climate risk is just one risk to be balanced against others. But runaway climate change renders such an attitude untenable. As environmental consultant Lisa Horrocks argued at the conference, we will need to abandon the traditional idea of adaptation and shift to a strategy of continuous transformation, one that accounts for the biggest impacts, plans for the long term and takes a system-wide approach. The language now used—'risk management', 'adapting', 'building resilience', 'no regrets', 'win—win'— reflects the belief that to accommodate a warmer world we need only tinker at the edges of the system. This is now a dangerous delusion because adapting to a limited amount of climate change may prove maladaptive for a world at four degrees and beyond. If we change our housing, infrastructure, farming systems and forest management to accommodate a two-degree world we may be in a weaker position to adapt to a four-degree world. Resources spent building dikes to defend against a one metre rise in sea levels will be wasted if seas rise above that level.

It almost goes without saying that the capacity of individuals to adapt is limited, the more so if social order breaks down. Societies must collectively transform themselves if we are to manage and alleviate the impacts of a world at four degrees and beyond. Although the Oxford conference was dominated by biophysical scientists, there were mentions of 'social tipping points'. To date the term has been mainly applied by marketers and popular social commentators to the questions of how social trends begin and how public opinion is changed. As societies struggle to cope with a world under four degrees of warming we can expect much deeper social stresses, something I take up in the next chapter.

At the conference, French sociologist Bertrand Guillaume gave some hints at possible futures. He noted that high awareness of the dangers of global warming does not necessarily translate into action to stop it, that catastrophe can be 'both inevitable and impossible'. This reminded me of the third evolutionary 'f' in response to danger—fight, flight or freeze. Nevertheless, said Guillaume, avoiding catastrophe demands radical measures including drastic wartime-style rationing of emissions-intensive commodities like meat, milk and petrol. The question is whether such measures would be met with voluntary compliance, as often occurs in wartime as societies unite to resist a common threat. If not, and a large proportion of citizens refuse to comply, then slashing emissions may require a 'benevolent tyranny'.

Guillaume posed the question that has begun to haunt others: Can we continue to gamble with democracy? Yet, I have often thought, those who suggest that in the face of an existential crisis the democratic system is too cumbersome to respond do not explain the process by which a society could make the transition from democracy to some form of emergency government. Who would seize the reins of power? An enlightened intelligentsia? A vanguard of concerned citizens? The intelligence services, perhaps in alliance with progressive business interests? What would be the source of their power? How would the military forces, charged with protecting the elected government, respond? How would the new administration gain legitimacy or exercise authority? And, of course, the problem with tyrannies is that, whatever their initial purpose, they are rarely benevolent. The answer is not to abandon democracy but to radicalise it.

Reflecting on the three days, conference organiser Diana Liverman, director of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, told of some acquaintances who, on hearing of the conference, said that it sounded like more of the same old thing. 'They couldn't see that we are saying something new,' she said despairingly. If being blasé is a device used by members of the public to ignore the truth, scientists too crave ways of escaping. Professor Liverman said that she sometimes just wants to 'immerse myself in academic work' in order to distance herself from its implications. But she knows that climate scientists have an obligation to tell the world about their research, to make sure the politicians have no excuse to pretend things will turn out differently. She urged those present to make their voices heard in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference and at the meeting itself. Alas, three months later in the Danish capital those in command of the facts were drowned out by industry lobbyists and ignored by timorous politicians.

Chapter 8

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