Gisele Weishan reflects on personal experience to provide new perspectives to tackle the climate crisis and on how to adapt to it.
The climate crisis is here. This is something that I and those around me realised back in 2019. Of course, it had probably been true for much longer than that but it was then that it really struck home. The widely broadcasted 2019-2020 Australian bushfires were the most catastrophic bushfire season ever experienced in my country’s history to which much was irrevocably lost. Over 17 million hectares were burnt, around 3,094 houses were destroyed, over one billion animals were killed and 33 human lives were lost, not including the hundreds of deaths and hospitalizations linked to the smoke and air pollution. This climate disaster is only one amongst many to have occurred, both in the past and present, proving that the discussion about the climate crisis can no longer be talked about solely in the future tense. Whilst mitigation remains an integral part of the broader strategic plan to combat the climate crisis and prevent its exacerbating effects, it is only one part of this bigger picture. Climate adaptation is the other.
Whereas mitigation is focused on lessening the severity of impacts wrought by climate change, specifically through preventing or reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the process of climate adaptation may be understood as adjusting to the current and expected future effects of climate change. NASA states that adaptation “also includes making the most of any potential opportunities associated with climate change (for example, longer growing seasons or increased yields in some regions).” So what are these steps that must be taken to adapt to the irrevocable changes the climate crisis has wrought on the present day?
Climate adaptation is not a new approach. In some cases, climate change has been directly tied to the rise and fall of civilisations to which Dr Jason Ur of Harvard University notes: “When we excavate the remains of past civilizations, we rarely find any evidence that they made any attempts to adapt in the face of a changing climate. I view this inflexibility as the real reason for collapse.” In staving off such prospects, adaptation solutions will need to encompass sectors relating to air, water, waste, infrastructure and public health. Possible measures may include: erecting buildings and infrastructure that are safer and more sustainable, replanting forests and restoring damaged ecosystems, developing action plans for climate emergencies, diversifying crops so that they are better able to adapt to changing climates…
Governmental efforts have become more focused on such adaptation solutions in recent years. The Paris Agreement committed to increasing the ability to adapt and address climate vulnerability. Countries adopted the Glasgow Climate Pact at COP26, doubling finances directed at supporting adaptation efforts in developing countries, and establishing a programme to identify collective needs and define a global goal on adaptation. More recently, COP27 saw new pledges to a designated Adaptation Fund, totalling more than USD 230 million. Moreover, the Adaptation Agenda was launched to move forward with the Global Goal of Adaptation to build climate resilience for four billion people living in the most climate-vulnerable countries by 2030.
Some towns and cities have already begun this process. In Ghana, female farmers have adapted to increasingly unpredictable rainfall by diversifying their livelihoods, now producing agricultural products that can be sold at higher market prices, such as soy milk and shea butter. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, farmers have diversified their crop choices to adapt to ongoing droughts and warmer weather, changing their yields from apples to peaches. In the Maldives, declining rainfall and hotter summers have seen the construction of larger rainwater tanks and desalination facilities to process seawater.
One aspect that renders the implementation of adaptation solutions more challenging, however, is that the approach cannot be uniform and is not necessarily clear-cut. Such can be seen with the repeated reconstruction efforts made subsequent to recurrent flooding in Pakistan over recent decades. Whilst aid agencies would readily replace destroyed homes time and time again, these were continually built with concrete or burnt brick structures. Whilst considered the most durable material in theory, when faced with the region’s heavy rains, these would soon collapse, turning the infrastructure itself into a dangerous threat to residents. Using concrete was ultimately questionable given the community in which it was being used: concrete as a heat-absorbing material was not adept to facilitate extreme Pakistan summers. The carbon-intensive process of its making also worsened the greenhouse effect and drove more catastrophic floods over the years. Finally, it was a costly material, meaning poorer villagers did not have the capacity to maintain or expand reconstruction efforts once aid organisations had left. To counter this cycle, Yasmeen Lari founded The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in 1980, an organisation that has been training villagers in the Sindh province to build their own flood-resilient homes based on local architectural traditions from cheap, locally available, low-carbon materials ever since.
This case shows that in finding solutions, the inclusion of rural and indigenous voices is integral: firstly, as these communities are those most severely impacted by the current and expected realities of climate change. Secondly, as the IPCC’s report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability outlines, “Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge can provide important understanding for acting effectively on climate risk… Indigenous Peoples have been faced with adaptation challenges for centuries and have developed strategies for resilience in changing environments that can enrich and strengthen current and future adaptation efforts.”
In a recent article for the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells said “You can never really see the future, only imagine it, then try to make sense of the new world when it arrives.” In that same article, Kate Marvel of NASA, a lead chapter author on the fifth National Climate Assessment went on to say, “The world will be what we make it.” In this vein, we must acknowledge that in the midst of advancing change, a new world has already been set upon us. And that as its custodians, we are the ones ultimately left to do the work of making sense of it. Of adapting to it. Of building from it something new and long-lasting as best we can, for as long as we can. Until the next change comes. Because the new world is here, and the future is very much now.
“The world will be what we make it.” — Kate Marvel of NASA