Adapting to Climate Chaos

About the Adapting to Climate Chaos by Strengthening Ecological and Social Systems book project.

Chaos and adaptation. Defining adaptation only in terms of a planned response to gradual environmental change is clearly wrong in a world of tipping points and sudden, locally-experienced calamities – GLOFs, seawater-, freshwater, ice- and snow-storms and floods, dzuds, ice-melt, fires, heat-waves, new infectious diseases, land- and mud-slides, the collapse of wildlife populations, ecosystems and coastlines, etc., and all their infrastructural and socioeconomic impacts. Most of them are unpredictable chaotic hazards, but current adaptation investments typically involve planning and programming for predicted hazards.

Sources of bias. This technical emphasis on predicted hazards is partly because of the McNamara Fallacy (‘to measure is to understand, and only that which can be measured is important’) and partly due to the attractiveness of quick fixes under political pressure. We can devise effective and humane responses (such as resettlement) to environmental challenges that cannot be adapted to, and we can make some progress on understanding trends and changing probabilities at the macro level (which should lead to responses in the areas of insurance, water, soil and biodiversity conservation measures, and educational networking between experienced and naïve communities). But the nature of the strategic problem itself means that most adaptation efforts should actually be focused on the strengthening of ecological and social systems against chaotic hazards of all sorts (within reason according to location).

Strengthening systems. This requires us to understand what we mean by ‘strengthening’ and ‘systems’ if we are to evaluate progress on adaptation, and this is the focus of my book, Adapting to Climate Chaos by Strengthening Ecological and Social Systems, which has been commissioned by Cambridge University Press. In it, I’ll look at three dimensions of strength – resilience (the ability to bounce back from disturbance), resistance (the ability to withstand impacts), and flexibility (the ability to bend or adjust rather than break under strain). I’ll discuss the problems of anticipating chaotic change, and I’ll present evidence from evaluated aid programmes that the fragility of complex systems can be reduced by promoting public understanding of ecology, the sharing of knowledge, and locally-accountable leadership.

Aims of the book. Evidence will be taken from past actions that were not, or not necessarily, conceived with climate change in mind, to show what adaptation success looks like and how it can be designed and evaluated for. These topics have urgency since climate chaos, mass extinction and ecosystem breakdown are recognised features of our immediate future, and tipping points in major systems such as the Arctic and Amazon are imminent. In parallel with bringing GHG emissions under strict control, adaptation is also a priority, especially for those concerned with sustainable development. Simple engineering solutions are often not enough, and my aim is to describe effective new ways to make it easier for citizens, leaders and aid professionals to make replicable strategic choices that will always tend to strengthen ecosystems and societies.