In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the number from which “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything” could be derived. In a twist of creative genius in Hitchhiker’s, it took 10-million years to build the ultimate computer to work out what the actual question was. The computer, otherwise known as Earth, was destroyed (to make way for a hypersteller bypass) minutes before the answer was reached.
Funded adaptation – it’s the answer to climate change impacts!
Or is it? Are we indeed in Hitchiker’s mode and giving the answer before we know the question?
Many are searching for a simple answer to climate change impacts, now that we’ve realised there are a plethora of serious and potentially irreversible changes coming (or in many cases already upon us). We don’t have 10 million years, like Adams’ computer builders of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, to figure out what we’re really trying to answer. At best we have a generation.
While funded adaptation is clearly AN answer to the question (and a clearly critical answer at that), it’s not THE answer – at least perhaps as we’re currently defining adaptation – and most importantly funding adaptation. Just as emission mitigation is AN answer, especially to reducing the potential of impacts, it too was never THE answer.
As Martin Parry eloquently described this year in the journal Nature and in his presentation at the recent International Climate Change Adaptation Conference, there is an increasing understanding of the ‘gap’ between funded adaptation and committed mitigation efforts (impacts avoided by funded adaptation and emission reduction pledges as per the Copenhagen Accord), “which is likely to result in substantial unavoidable impacts”. That is, even with action towards adaptation and mitigation, there will remain unavoidable impacts – the ‘adaptation gap’. So, as things stand, climate change impacts avoided by financed adaptation, and those impacts reduced by mitigative action, won’t be THE answer.
The fundamental question is: what are we trying to adapt to, and why? And then, how do we work out how to measure how well we’re doing at adapting? This explicitly recognises that our ability to consciously adapt is limited by our societal, financial, and institutional capacities (which are underpinned by a clear set of ethical principles – see the recent post by Donald A. Brown for example). There are also inherent system thresholds that when exceeded will lead to ‘state changes’ and ‘emergent behaviours’. Hence, all we can do is hope to have worked out in advance, and tried to manage, the transition between state changes – or at least be aware of (or bear) the consequences.
It would seem timely to pause, post-Copenhagen and pre-Cancun, and think about what the ultimate questions are with respect to climate change adaptation. And then to refocus on addressing the questions.