Tag Archives: climate change

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.

Water 2020: new edition, new problems, new solutions

As water crises multiply, and mass extinction and climate chaos escalate, we have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. To respond requires that our adaptive skills are informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point. Public involvement in the environmental struggle is now worldwide, transforming political agendas everywhere. Science, spirit and community are working together to release energy for change and justice at a scale seldom seen before. The channelling of this energy into ecological restoration and renewal of our relationships with nature and with each other is the great task of everyone alive today or soon to be born. It is time to make Peace with Nature.”  (Water: Life in Every Drop, pbk ISBN 9781843199632, hbk ISBN 9781843199649.

More of the same but worse, plus chaos

As large swathes of England are flooded and much of Australia burns, the 2020 edition of Water: Life in Every Drop introduces key ideas of water ecology and sustainable development. These ideas are essentially unchanged since 2008, and stories I tell and their implications for our relationship with water remain true. The need is now even stronger for ecological thinking to shape our laws and constitutions. I have weeded the book for anything that seems misleading on current reading, and in the process I updated it. Lake Baikal in Siberia is now more threatened by pollution, for example, and there are many more people living around Lake Naivasha in Kenya. These reflect general trajectories, as does the rising power of China, but for water, ecosystems and climate the position can be summarised as ‘more of the same but worse, plus chaos’.

Meanwhile, many forebodings have been fulfilled. The consequences of global heating are hard to anticipate in detail as they involve turbulent systems, but some predictions are spot on. Many thousands of wild species are sliding into extinction each year, the sea is rising, atmospheric and oceanic currents are wobbling, multi-year droughts are grinding down large parts of Australia, North America and southern Africa, heatwaves are killing people in Europe and India, and lethal wildfires are raging with unheard-of ferocity in unexpected places. Every new year is breaking records for mean global surface temperature, and savage storms are taking heat and water from warmer oceans and slamming into unprepared coastlines. And all this follows with precision the expected path of a biosphere newly-loaded with greenhouse gases released by the actions of humanity.

It was recognised in 2016 that human impacts mean that we are now living in a transition to a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which will be clearly visible in future sedimentary deposits that are rich in plastics and poor in fossil species. The Anthropocene succeeds the gentler Holocene, which followed the end of the Ice Ages 11,700 years ago. Our cities and farming systems depend on Holocene conditions, so there is now real concern that humanity will die out during this transition, along with most other life forms. We have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. And we’re also running out of time. The melting of the Arctic Summer sea ice, which for decades has been absorbing surplus solar heat trapped on Earth by an enhanced greenhouse effect, is a particularly worrying trend that seems to be heading for zero in about 2030. After that, all bets are off.

Local water, local heroes, 2020

But we should remember that there are thousands of brilliant efforts by small groups all over the world — an aquifer or catchment restored here, a neighbourhood preparing against disaster there — multiplying everywhere but invisible to big government. These grass-roots actions must be validated and supported, networked and replicated, until they condense into a new Zeitgeist in which we all suddenly realise that of course we must pay attention to ecology, of course we must protect the web of life, and ask ourselves why else would we have minds, spirits and communities?

And meanwhile, we should also remember:

  • that there are thousands of cities and hundreds of states and provinces that are getting on with ecologically-positive action regardless of what their national governments are doing;
  • that some small countries are declaring ‘peace with nature’ and halting or reversing deforestation, extinction, and greenhouse gas emissions, with Costa Rica, Nepal, Bhutan, New Zealand, Iceland, East Timor and Portugal all springing to mind;
  • that many corporations now see their assets as dangerously exposed to ecological risks, with their managers, shareholders and regulators struggling to forge new rules, often encouraged by potent divestment campaigns; and
  • that since 2018 the Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion movements have been putting enormous constructive, non-violent pressure on governments across the world, forcing a re-think of human priorities and laws in the face of impending ecological collapse.

The future, if we can but imagine it …

This is all great stuff, and because this re-thinking was starting when I wrote this book I began Chapter 10 with a visit to the year 2085: ‘The biosphere, having been saved…’ While it is easy to be discouraged if you look only at big governments and the big picture, hope is to be found hidden in the undergrowth where local actions, local heroes, and small countries are the green shoots that will one day replace the deadly old system. In the process, we’ll have to accept that the rules of ecology apply to everyone, always and everywhere, but that we have the intelligence, compassion, will and freedom needed to rebuild a world that is good for everyone — born and unborn, weak and strong, human and non-human.

Physics, astronomy, evolution, governance

There are other challenges for the imagination here. They include background themes, such as the astonishing physical chemistry of water itself (Chapter 1) and the presence of water on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system and beyond (Chapter 2). Also, the origins of the ‘tree of life’ (Chapter 2), and the influence of human adaptation to coastal environments, in which foraging in water helped to shape our minds and bodies (Chapter 3). And the EU’s Water Framework Directive (Chapter 9), which is now seen as part of a global drive towards green ‘experimentalist’ governance, where local heroes meet, teach and make friends with national and international institutions.

Ocean plastics and acidification, wildlife collapse, water shortage

Meanwhile, some topics in the book have been publicised and popularised to the point of common knowledge and general interest. They include the following.

  • Plastic in the oceans (Chapter 4) is choking, entangling and poisoning sea life, and is an inevitable consequence of making non-biodegradable materials for everyday use by everyone in an exploding population on a small planet. To solve it we will have to phase out the use of such plastics through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the debris.
  • Acidification of the oceans (Chapter 2) is eroding the web of aquatic life that sustains most of the biosphere and is an inevitable consequence of burning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, which dissolves in water to make carbonic acid. The current rate looks set to make the oceans more acidic than they have been for 65 million years. To solve this, we will have to phase out the burning of fossil fuels through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the air by capturing the greenhouse gases that have already been released.
  • Collapse of wildlife numbers and diversity (Chapters 2, 4 and 9), by more than half since the 1970s, is an inevitable consequence of feeding and enriching humans by replacing most natural ecosystems with artificial ones and then spraying poisons over everything. To solve it we will have to deploy environmental education, community ecosystem ownership and benefit sharing, payment for ecosystem services, ecological restoration, organic farming and other effective arrangements in millions of locations, while also protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife populations through effective regulation, and systematically closing down and cleaning up all sources of agricultural, industrial and urban pollution.
  • Critical shortage of fresh water in urban areas (Chapters 6, 8 and 9) is an inevitable consequence of not paying attention to where water comes from, not managing catchments properly, and not charging users enough to pay for these things (while also, often, being an inevitable consequence of rising sea levels and drought induced by global heating). To solve it we will have to establish ecosystem protection, ecological service payments and restoration arrangements in upstream locations, while investing in public water systems that guarantee adequate water for all at affordable cost, solving the climate change problem if we can, and managing humanely the evacuation of unviable cities where we have to.

Learning to survive

Some of the changes that face us during the birth of the Anthropocene may well be manageable, but only if our adaptive skills can be informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point.

© Julian Caldecott

Praise for Water: Life in Every Drop:

  • A brilliant overview of an enormous subject’ – Steven Poole, The Guardian.
  • ‘Should be read far, wide and as soon as possible . . . it does an excellent job of promoting a rational, effective, trans-ideological approach to environmental decision making’ – Miguel Mendonça, Resurgence.
  • Caldecott keeps a masterly hand on the reins of what is a vast topic . . . With laudable dexterity, [he] moves from the very small to the very large, from the interactions of atomic particles to the role water plays in the biosphere’ – The Ecologist.
  • ‘A prophetic read’ – Edward P. Echlin, ecological theologian and author of The Cosmic Circle.
  • ‘Includes a lucid presentation of the Aquatic Ape Theory . . . The book shows that we can avoid disaster if we come to our senses and give Gaia a helping hand’ – Elaine Morgan, evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Descent of Woman and The Scars of Evolution.
  • ‘What could be more important than water? This book looks at every aspect of water from its chemistry and mystery to its central role in the ecology of EVERY LIVING THING. And yet, it’s a riveting read, full of fascinating stories from an author who actually knows what he’s talking about. So many of these environmental books are written by journalists with no real grounding in the subject. But Julian Caldecott is an ecologist with decades of field experience which enrich this work. He’s been there, done it, seen it and best of all, has put into practice ways of solving local water crises of every hue. Give it to all your friends and relations  – they’ll love you for providing a good read and you’ll glow with the pleasure of sharing knowledge on the big issue of the coming decade.’ – ‘Smartyhands’ on Amazon.
  • ‘I’ve just finished reading Water by Julian Caldecott. There’s a long waiting list to read it after me, but it goes deeply into marine pollution, of course. One point he makes is that visitors (tourists) to the coast need to take care of the environment they’re visiting. Earlier in the book there’s a good summary of what a Biosphere is, which I sent to the members of our Grabouw Beautiful committee. Highly recommended!’ – Andy Selfe, Whale Coast Conservation (Cape Town).
  • Water by Julian Caldecott is a brilliant, beautifully written book which I found very informative and initially depressing, but it finished on a positive note with a clear message of hope.’ – Henrik Chart, Land, Sea & Islands Centre, Arisaig (Scotland).


Leadership is the skill with which a group’s needs and desires are detected, shaped, and steered. This is worth thinking about, because we are surrounded and blathered at by people claiming to be ‘leaders’ – of political parties and countries especially – but few of them are any good at it. As a result, we are in a real pickle – doomed to being driven mad (e.g. by Brexit) and then extinct (e.g. by climate change). In short, we need good leadership, and urgently. But how to recognise it?

The idea of leadership. The  verb ‘to lead’ comes from the Old English lǣdan (‘lead’) and lād (‘journey’, ‘way’, ‘course’), and it’s linked to ‘load’ (things you carry on a journey) and ‘lode’ (as in lodestar and lodestone, things that guide you on a journey). People have been migrating for scores of millennia (from Africa to Australia and the Americas), and even settled peoples can never afford to forget how to do it as there is always the risk of drought, sea-level rise and invasion. So the idea of a person responsible for starting and steering a journey must be utterly primal. But a group must be ready to travel before a leader can shape a vague motivation to move into enthusiasm for a journey in a particular direction, with all its dangers and labours. And physical travel is only where the idea of leadership came from originally; it now covers other kinds of journey, ones that involve change and progress in relationships between people, and between people and their environments. All require similar skills in managing conflict by dispensing justice, managing relations with other groups, understanding and articulating the needs and desires of groups, and choosing directions and destinations. Leadership is the artistry in doing all these things – and ‘good leadership’ means doing them well.

Why is leadership so hard? Because it brings together every other mental capacity. It requires all signs in the environment to be seen and understood, including the moods of people, nature, and the spirit world, the behaviour of animals, the crying of babies, the texture of grass and soil, and the frequency, intensity and content of social disputes. Many of the clues are subtle – the bad temper of white-tipped reef sharks just before an earthquake, for example – while others (such as the dust of an approaching army) are anything but. In any case, there is a long list, from which particular indicators are chosen (as influenced by culture, itself shaped by experience in that particular environment), and their significance marshalled into a story that can help the group’s ideas and desires take form. These will have been influenced by the same signals that the leader has detected, but perhaps not organised so well or in the same way.

Why do leaders have to be brave? Many important environmental and social signals cannot be appreciated without knowledge and attention to detail, so they may only be recognised by a few people. This applies often in large, complex or fragmented societies in which there are many distractions, and especially involve environmental threats (such as slowly-deteriorating ecological conditions) and social threats (such as slowly-growing inequality, corruption, and political polarisation). Here, if the threats are severe and solutions are needed urgently, but there is little public appreciation of the need for action, an essential quality of leadership is a willingness to act decisively to safeguard the group but in advance of public opinion.

Leaders must make sense of complexity. Modern societies comprise millions of people in political systems and billions in economic ones, and have complex distributions of power among class, caste, gender, ethnic, ideological, and other groups. Distilling useful messages from so many people now requires very selective listening (to focal groups, poll samples, and factional leaders), and very crude messaging about the intentions of the leadership. One-size-fits all price signals, slogans and binary choices tend to replace the subtleties of social discourse, and minorities that cannot build alliances to form large voting blocks tend to be ignored. Only through universal, high-quality education can good minority ideas (such as equity and sustainability) spread widely, and only through local empowerment and decentralisation can accountable governance be maintained in ultra-large political systems. But both education and localism are needed, since otherwise leadership in large societies produces non-inclusive and polarised outcomes. And when these outcomes are challenged by dire events in the social sphere (e.g. through insurrection by the dispossessed), the economic sphere (e.g. through technological or market changes), or the environmental sphere (e.g. through the consequences of climate change), then polarised outcomes can quickly turn into despotic ones. Then we end up with warlords rather than good leaders running the world.

So what are we looking for? Good leadership must include the competence to identify key challenges, the attention given to diverse signals about them and how they are likely to affect the group, the intelligence needed to seek, discriminate and absorb sound advice about what to do about them, the articulacy to explain and build support for a collective course of action that will minimise harm and maximise benefit for most people in the long run, and the flexibility to maintain alliances while adapting to events. So a good leader must be competent, attentive, intelligent, articulate, and flexible, and in the modern world all this must be combined with a surety of touch in communicating with very diverse audiences. How many of those who claim to be leaders come close? Have a look at the UK parliament right now, and see what you think.

© Julian Caldecott


Ecology is the science of living systems. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality. As biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world. This makes biological thought very practical, and often to do with budgets, investments, costs and benefits that may be expressed and accounted in terms of energy, nutrients and surviving offspring. But being also concerned with systems, ecology focuses on describing the parts, their relationships, the things that connect them, and the properties that result from all the parts, relationships and connections being active within or upon each system.

Since every living system is connected to every other, an ecologist distinguishes them only as a matter of convenience, and has to remain alert to possible influences from abroad at all times. Here, ‘abroad’ means any kind of distance – spatial, but also sensory (that is, what can be detected using our human senses, as constrained by the expectations of our culture and the abilities shaped by our inherent aptitudes and training, and what other organisms can detect using their own senses, which may differ from ours) and instrumental (that is, what can be detected by the instruments we use, as constrained by the expectations of existing knowledge that are designed into the equipment, and which may simply be unable to detect something important). So while proceeding more-or-less within the boundaries of consilient science, this alertness to ‘abroad’ makes ecologists open to the phenomenological diversity that is inherent to anthropology, mythology, psychology and religion, and also to potential connections within and between systems that are invisible to human senses and current instruments.

At the same time, the systems approach requires an ecologist to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger system, in a connected sequence from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level, over every imaginable scale of time and space. This is a way of thinking reminiscent of anthropology, since both have the same challenge of reconciling detail and pattern at all scales. Living systems include our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. These are all systems, and climate change is a system-wide phenomenon, so we have no choice but to address it at a system-wide level. In doing so, since every part of the ecological story has to be supported by evidence and reason, the result in ecology is an edifice of systems knowledge that is reliable, vast and inclusive enough to make sense of climate change and help with the challenge of adaptation in all parts of the world and at all scales of human society and the ecosystems that sustain it.

© Julian Caldecott

Climate change and migration

The World Bank’s publication Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration looks at sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and considers how climate change will force people to move inside their own countries as their livelihoods are undermined.  It concludes that the numbers affected will be in the tens of millions in each region, and that the problem will escalate without “concerted climate and development action”.

I touched on all this in my book Aid Performance and Climate Change, writing that “climate change will inevitably cause the displacement of large numbers of people, from small islands and coastal zones mainly due to sea-level rise, salt intrusion and storm exposure, and within continental systems mainly due to drought and desertification, with flooding, disease, fire, and other hazards adding to the pressures.  Population movements may be involuntary and sudden, or voluntary and slow, but will interact with policies, plans and laws at an increasing rate.  The chaos in Europe resulting from the 2015-2016 mass arrival of desperate people displaced by conflict in south-west Asia draws attention to the need for careful contingency planning and the resourcing of adaptive measures.

“This would apply, for example, to such scenarios as the irreversible flooding of major cities, the creeping emigration of people who abandon life in water-stressed areas, and the failure of entire national economies among small-island developing states and deltaic countries.  The starting point for planning will be different in each case, depending for instance on cultural, geographic, and historical factors (which will affect how easily a group of people can be accommodated in a new setting), and whether a policed national boundary limits the movement of displaced people.  In all cases, while it is tempting to deny the problem and its causes, this response is not viable so coherent and acceptable solutions will need to be prepared for and budgeted.”

There is much here to think about for everyone, everywhere (including Europe).

© Julian Caldecott