Climate Adaptation Policy

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Ian Gough:

"Climate Adaptation Policy "seeks to lower the risks posed by the consequences of climatic changes. Adaptation policies target the last two rows of the figure to reduce risks to habitats and human wellbeing. Clearly a combination of mitigation and adaptation interventions will be necessary to forestall harmful impacts on human populations.

In between the two there is a potential third domain of interventions designed to directly target cumulative GHG concentrations, global temperature rise and regional climate change. This is the arena of geo-engineering, deliberate large-scale interventions in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change, for example by reflecting part of the sun’s energy back into space or directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Geo-engineering is beginning to enter policy debate, but the current consensus is that it is fraught with unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic consequences and I do not discuss it further here. ‘We should remain under no illusion that if we have to resort to these kinds of technologies, then humankind is in a mess’ (Berners-Lee and Clark 2013; cf. Royal Society 2010).


Mitigation plays a central role in Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims for ‘stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The Copenhagen Accord was endorsed by 167 countries, agreeing that the safest maximum amount that global temperatures should be allowed to rise above the pre-industrial level is 2 °C. To achieve this, the Paris agreement in December 2015 calls for zero net anthropogenic GHG emissions to be reached during the ‘second half of the 21st century’. In addition nations at Paris agreed to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase to no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC 2015).

This is a safer but dauntingly ambitious goal. According to Lord Stern (2015), to achieve (only) a 50:50 chance of avoiding global warming exceeding 2 °C by the end of the century, and taking population growth into account, global emissions must be cut from around 7 tonnes CO2e1 per person per year now to no more than 2 tonnes by 2050 – a revolutionary downshift of 3.5 times. But, if output per person continues to grow at its present rate (roughly trebling by 2050), then global emissions per unit of output must fall by a factor of 7–8 times by 2050 – as I write now only 33 years away.

Moreover, the risks of modelling a 50:50 chance are self-evident. Bill McKibben (2012) has taken to task other models using a ‘reasonable 20%’ risk, pointing out that ‘reasonable’ in this case means ‘one chance in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter’. A 50:50 chance is like playing Russian roulette with bullets in three chambers.

The range of potential mitigation interventions is enormous. A short list would include: reducing fossil fuel extraction; pricing carbon; fostering renewable energy technology, alternative fuels and alternative transport systems and mobility structures; investing in new technology and energy efficiency; encouraging net forestation, changes in rural land use and agricultural practices (management of croplands, grazing lands and soil restoration); managing urban forms and land use; building infrastructure and spatial planning; designing buildings for energy efficiency; and changing consumer behaviour, lifestyle and culture (IPCC 2014c). Some of these will be encountered and analysed in this book.

Taking just the first of the list above, research by Carbon Tracker estimates that the world could emit about 900 gigatonnes (Gt) (billions of tonnes) of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 (of which 17 years have now elapsed) and still have a ‘reasonable’ chance of avoiding 2 °C warming (Ranger and Ward 2013). These figures are far lower than present-day estimates of the carbon embedded in usable reserves – some 2860 Gt, implying that two-thirds of present reserves of coal, oil and gas cannot be mined. This has fostered a new approach to carbon mitigation: to ‘keep the oil in the soil’ (Berners-Lee and Clark 2013).


Adaptation is defined by the IPCC as ‘the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects’ in both human and natural systems (IPCC 2014c). This process of adjustment differs according to regions and includes: the evolution of agricultural practices adapted to temperature; agroforestry to manage wildfires; land-use changes and settlement relocation; increased efficiency in water management systems; infectious disease control; wetland restoration and the maintenance of coastal landforms; enhanced monitoring, regulation and early warning systems for extreme weather events; stronger flood defences; the development of sustainable cities; and so on. This list excludes social adaptation measures such as building social capital and more resourceful communities able to withstand climate impacts.

An important distinction between the two policy domains must be noted here (Kolstad et al. 2014): mitigating GHG emissions is predominantly a ‘global public good’, whereas adaptation is more often a private or national good. Gains from adaptation (such as changing a crop to one more heat tolerant, or building flood defences) tend to be realised by the same parties or territories that are incurring the costs. There may be externalities involved, but these tend to be more localised and contemporaneous.2

The case of GHG mitigation is quite different: emissions in any geographical space will affect the global concentration everywhere. There are thus ‘collective action problems’. ‘Incentives for individuals or countries to unilaterally reduce emissions are considerably reduced; free-riding on the actions of others is a dominant strategy … and lack of coordination yields insufficient mitigation’ (IPCC 2014a). Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) research on common pool resources concludes that efficient environmental management is more likely where four conditions hold: the environmental problem is visible; cause and effect relations are understood; the problem is reversible; and management results in clear net benefits to key constituencies. For many decades after the scientific community began to chart global warming none of these conditions applied to mitigating climate change, outside a few pioneers. Awareness of the first two is now growing as conditions worsen (Christoff and Eckersley 2013).


Turning to the ‘inner ring’ of Raworth’s (2012) lifebelt, I now summarise international and global efforts to map out the ‘social’ domain. What ‘welfare’ or ‘wellbeing’ consists of is discussed in detail in Chapter 2, but they certainly include concerns with health and survival chances, literacy and learning, access to essential resources and opportunities to participate in social life. The social dimension typically combines two things: a concern with levels of human wellbeing, and a concern with equity and justice – the way that wellbeing is distributed between peoples.

There is clear evidence of improved global wellbeing since the Second World War, as the 2015 Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Report makes clear (Whitmee et al. 2015):

By most metrics, human health is better today than at any time in history. Life expectancy has soared from 47 years in 1950–1955, to 69 years in 2005–2010 … The total number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 0.7 billion over the past 30 years, despite an increase in the total population of poor countries of about 2 billion. This escape from poverty has been accompanied by unparalleled advances in public health, health care, education, human rights legislation, and technological development that have brought great benefits, albeit inequitably, to humanity.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has developed a composite measure, the Human Development Index (HDI), that combines measures of health (life expectancy), learning (literacy and education) and resources to meet other basic needs (the log of GDP per head). This also charts significant improvements across the world, though less so in Africa.

Against this picture of progress, income inequality between countries widened throughout most of the twentieth century as the industrialising West pulled away from the rest of the world. It had also colonised much of that world or exercised economic power to prevent the emergence of serious competition. Only around the turn of the millennium did this trend reverse, when economic growth in the East really took off (Bocchiola 2013). However, since around 1980 inequality has begun to rise within most countries, in some at a rapid rate. This has renewed concerns over equity and justice and slowed down the rate of global average improvement in the HDI – by one-quarter from what it would otherwise be, according to the UNDP (2011).

Global concern with social conditions has taken many forms, including efforts to establish global social rights and agreed development goals. The 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights comprised a wide range of civil and political rights but also certain economic and social rights: for example the rights to work, education and a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond people’s control (UN General Assembly 1948). This was followed by a further stream of declarations and conventions, many codified in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), both of which came into force in 1976. Since then, there have been the 1981 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ICEDAW), the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and others. All of these include social and economic rights. However, implementation is soft, to say the least.

In 2000 the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were unanimously agreed by all 189 member states (Hulme and Scott 2010). Eight goals were set with 21 targets – for example to reduce by two-thirds by 2015 the under-five mortality rate; to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation – and more than 60 indicators were agreed to chart progress. They amount to ‘a minimum set of global social standards in education, health and poverty alleviation’ (Deacon 2007: 173). The poverty target has been achieved (ten years early) but not that for malnutrition. The gender equality goal was achieved and the education goal narrowly missed. However, the health goals were not met.


The global picture painted so far charts three diverging trends: first, significant progress in some core features of social conditions and human development across the globe; second, rising inequalities; and, third, an as yet uncontrolled accumulation of greenhouse gases that will drive future global warming with significant damaging consequences for habitats and human welfare.

The following questions arise:

● What are the implications of climate change for future human welfare? ● How will the pursuit of climate stability interact with the pursuit of social improvement? ● Can we achieve some combination of equity/justice and sustainability?"