We can adapt using degenerative solutions, or we can adapt using solutions that regenerate the living systems on which we depend.
We have entered a new phase of the climate and ecological emergency. Mitigating climate change by reducing carbon emissions is simply not enough. We have to adapt. The more important question now: can we do this whilst maintaining forward momentum on the environmental front?
The unprecedented extreme weather events of 2021 signal that we live in a new world. Starting in the Arctic and spreading across the planet, tipping cascades are coming into play – with the collapse of one natural system toppling the next in a domino effect.
This terrifying news comes on top of forecasts from the IPCC which are at best catastrophic for people and planet.
These catastrophic forecasts themselves have been massaged to be as publicly acceptable as possible, but depend on rates of carbon emission reduction and carbon storage technologies that are unproven. It is hard to face, but apocalyptic outcomes are our most likely future – at least as things stand.
We must dream but we don’t have the luxury of believing in fantasies. Staying under 1.5 oC of warming is so unlikely that leading scientists such as professor Kevin Anderson put our chances at under one per cent.
Adaptation has been a taboo subject for a long time among environmentalists. Accept adaptation and you undermine mitigation. Thinking about adaptation is an admission of failure. Talk about adaptation and you condemn the poor in their millions to death, leaving the compassionate rich to live with their guilt.
But things have been changing. Movements such as Deep Adaptation have led the way, bravely opening conversations which are as challenging as they get, helping members on their emotional journeys.
Others are focussing more on practicalities. Many are speaking about adaptation in the context of preparedness, particularly in light of the experience of coronavirus.
For example, Dr Alice Hill, former Special Assistant to the President Obama and Senior Director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council, has recently launched her book ‘The Fight for Climate after Covid-19’. She asserts that we can learn such as early action, cross-border planning, and bolstering emergency preparation.
If we accept adaptation, the more helpful question to explore is ‘How?’
Most simply, we can prevent flooding with concrete walls whose construction will add to emissions and whose impact may just be to shift risk; or we can plant trees and regenerate soils, absorbing carbon, supporting wildlife and producing food.
We can adapt using degenerative solutions, or we can adapt using solutions that regenerate the living systems on which we depend. Adaptation and mitigation are not separate strategies.
Nonetheless, adaptation can come with guilt. As with a plane ditching, we must try to put on our own oxygen masks so we have the best chance of helping others.
Pooran Desai has worked in sustainability for over thirty years, co-founding environmental organisation, Bioregional. He coined the term One Planet Living, and led Bioregional’s One Planet Living initiative for over eighteen years working with communities, companies and cities around the world. The One Planet Living framework formed the inspiration for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He is now chief executive of OnePlanet.com.