November 17, 2011

Climate change adaptation: local to global

Some of you may have already read this- I posted it on my facebook last spring. In a few weeks I'm giving a lecture to the environmental ethics class I TA based on this topic, so I thought I would reshare it!

Climate change adaptation is a current impetus for decisions that will result in profound changes in both agricultural landscapes and social systems, although as Stephen Lansing argues, “Agriculture, in short, is a social as well as a technical process” (Lansing, 1991, p. 6). Sustainability, which we have identified as having social, economic, political, and environmental elements, is deeply connected to climate change adaptation. What I will explore today is the nested system of decisions related to climate change adaptation. Who makes decisions at each level of adaptation, and what might the consequences be?

One of the challenges of addressing climate change impacts is of scale. Climate change is viewed as a global issue with local impacts. Pielke Sr. et al. write that, “The IPCC and U.S. National Assessment reports start from a large global perspective and work to downscale to regional and local impacts” (2007, p. 235). For example, countries like Bangladesh are predicted to be hit hard by climate change, due to both physical (low-lying coastal country) and social (highly dependent on agriculture, pervasive poverty) vulnerabilities. Some of these vulnerable countries are the least able to prepare for climate change impacts. Thus, we tend to imagine climate change adaptation in hierarchical terms.

At a global level, decisions had until recently revolved around climate change mitigation (lessening greenhouse gas emissions), but a new paradigm of climate adaptation as a moral obligation of international development is forming. Developed countries can contribute money and expertise to developing countries that are vulnerable to climate impacts. Countries and regions will have to decide what sort of local policies might be enacted to deal with climate impacts: perhaps strengthening adaptive capacity through economic empowerment of people in poverty, or preparing for the social and political ramifications of “climate change migration” and “environmental refugees.” On a local level, however, farmers might face more immediate questions like: what environmental changes will I see this year? What crops should I plant? The top down notion of adaptation sees solutions like modeling regional impacts of climate change and developing “climate-ready” crops as desirable.

We tend to think of farmers as rejecting change-- for example, we perpetuate the ideal of the American heritage family farm. However, agriculture has radically changed over the past century in both developed and developing countries. During the Green Revolution, farmers rapidly adopted new agricultural technologies and land management practices, despite the negative social and environmental outcomes sometimes associated with these. Perhaps in less-developed countries like Bangladesh, rather than prescribing a future based on assessments of current technologies, local knowledge could be incorporated into higher level decision-making.

Works cited:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2001. Third Assessment Report Glossary. P. 365.

Lansing, Stephen, 1991. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pielke, Roger A., Sr., 2007. A new paradigm for assessing the role of agriculture in the climate system and in climate change. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 142, 234–254.

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