Living through the storm
13 Mar 2011
You’ve probably heard the old quip: when a new idea appears, first it’s ignored, then it’s denied and then finally it’s accepted as common knowledge. When it comes to climate change adaptation, the climate community has already gone through this process; having once regarded the idea as taboo, it is now regarded as important a response to climate change as mitigation.
But for the general public, adaptation is still little known and widely ignored. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard hopes to change that with his new book, Hot. Hertsgaard is a veteran environmental reporter, writing for diverse magazines including political stalwart The Nation and fashion-conscious Vanity Fair, and having travelled the world for his earlier book, Earth Odyssey, on how people are transforming their environment.
For Hot, he hits the road again, drawing on more than five years of travel to some of the places that are changing the most in the world — both because of climate change and rapid development. These are the world’s adaptation hotspots, where people will probably need to adjust their lives the most and the soonest — and where the direction of development today could have a big effect on how well they adapt in coming decades.
He makes the obligatory pilgrimage to Bangladesh — which has been dubbed ‘ground zero of climate change’ — to talk about how this low-lying country, almost entirely a delta, is under threat from rising seas and the possibility of worsening monsoon floods. He also checks in on the grapevines of California wine country, whose sensitive fruits are already showing the strain of a changing climate.
But Hertsgaard also ventures far off the beaten track of conventional climate reporting. Trekking through northern Mali in Africa’s parched Sahel he finds a success story — all the more compelling as it is home-grown from some of the world’s poorest people. The region experienced a long drought in the 1980s, and even though there is more rainfall now, it tends to come in intense downpours according to Hertsgaard’s main source, a Dutch environmental scientist who has worked for decades on agriculture in the region. By resurrecting a traditional practice of encouraging trees to grow alongside crops, villagers have managed to rehabilitate “degraded savanna that was on the verge of becoming a desert,” which Hertsgaard calls “a quiet green miracle.”
This type of transformation will be crucial for adapting to climate change, Hertsgaard argues, because it is low-cost and helps people to cope with change now as well as preparing them for the future, regardless of what that future holds. Throughout the book, Hertsgaard stresses the importance of such resilience. Rather than always tackling problems head-on, there are other ways of dealing with adversity — such as countering dwindling water supplies through eco-agricultural practices that help retain soil moisture, rather than increasing reservoir storage, he points out.
However, while emphasizing uncertainty about the future helps bolster Hertsgaard’s argument about the need for resilience, he tends to skip over the great uncertainty in climate projections, such as rainfall. He often cites studies of estimated impacts as if they were fact, rather than an attempt to peer far into the future through cloudy binoculars.
Hertsgaard also seems at times to blame too much on climate change, downplaying the other factors involved. This ‘glossing over’ of complex topics may annoy experts, but is to some degree inevitable in a popular book such as this.
When discussing uncertainty about sea-level rise, one local government official tells Hertsgaard that “the climate science of 2020 will know more than we know today.” We may know more in a decade, but it is not clear that will actually narrow the uncertainty much, as often what we learn is how poorly we understood things before. It seems, instead, we have to work out ways to adapt without relying on being any more certain in the future about potential climate impacts.
The most valuable aspect of this book is perhaps the emphasis on the social side of adaptation. Hertsgaard points out that the Netherlands’ success at planning for climate change shows that “social context matters more than technological prowess.” The country is certainly well-off, but they also have a long history of collective water management and working together to cope with floods. The Dutch are abandoning some land to allow space for the rivers to flood in a controlled manner, and although the farmers that use that land now aren’t happy about giving it up, it doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker. In the US, on the other hand, “retreat-with-compensation is a much harder sell,” Hertsgaard argues.
These kinds of local situations are easy to overlook when taking a broader view of how well the world might adapt to climate change. Hertsgaard’s on-the-ground reporting highlights how we are more vulnerable than we might think, and how adaptation will probably be harder than we expect. Before visiting China, for example, Hertsgaard reads a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that states that Shanghai’s flood defences are “among the best in the world.” But he wanders around the city and sees that while the old city has high defences, the new, fast-growing business district of Pudong has only “puny dikes” between it and the river. China — along with much of the world — is growing faster than its defences.
In China, and many other places around the world, Hertsgaard was frustrated to find many people who were not concerned about climate change, doubting whether it is really happening or really a threat. And as one expert tells him, “you can’t adapt to a problem that you don’t think exists.” Hot should help make it harder for the public to ignore or deny climate change and the need to adapt. Soon, perhaps, it will be regarded as common sense — and then the world can get started with the hard work of adapting on the vast scale that is needed.