Tag Archives: Environment

Development? Adaptation? Or something in between?


This week I’ve been thinking back to a class I took my first year of grad school. It was focused on climate change – not the science alone, but the more nuanced concepts of mitigation, adaptation and resiliency. These ideas come back to me often when I hear climate change being discussed in the media and in more political contexts.

Here in the U.S. when we talk about climate change (yes, I am well aware it is not currently in the news, due to more pressing topics like, oh, I don’t know, our government shutting down), it is at worst focused on nitpicking valid scientific data, and at best more productively focused on options for mitigation. Mitigation, to be clear, refers to those practices that will help curb the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that human development produces in large quantity.  President Obama’s recent Climate Plan, and actions taken by the EPA over the past several years, sought to promote this idea of mitigation. But while mitigation is obviously an important concept–and I am in no way dismissing it’s place in the climate discussion–a sole focus on mitigation activities seems futile. Given the way that greenhouse gasses collect and remain in our atmosphere, it is too late to focus on mitigation alone – even if we were to stop emitting carbon, it would not be enough to stop the impacts of climate change.

Adaptation is starting to become the new buzzword, primarily in academic circles, and is seen almost as the next step after mitigation. Adaptation, for lack of a set definition, is the practice of dealing with the tangible impacts of climate change. It’s what happens after mitigation fails (or gets started too late). For example, changing farming practices to allow for continued food production in an increasingly arid environment might be an example of adaptation. Adaptation is also closely tied to the concept of resiliency.  Originally a scientific term that relates to ecological systems, resiliency applied to climate change is more socially focused. It’s the ability of people to be ok–to maintain life and livelihoods–even after climate change alters their lives. I tend to think of resiliency as a measurement of the level of people’s ability to adapt, though as I experienced in the class I referred to earlier, this is up for debate.

Now, to the ideas that really interest me. Or perhaps paradox is the word. The underlying factors that influence adaptation and resiliency are quite similar to indicators of “development”.  In a word: resources. If you have money, access to markets, the ability to purchase food, a road to drive on, a changing climate is (barring disaster) something that is in your capabilities to handle. As an aspiring international development practicioner, I struggle with whether or not adaptation to climate change is separate from traditional international development priorities and values, and funding. If access to livelihoods, infrastructure and other resources determines a community’s ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, then do we need to even talk about adaptation to climate change? Should we maybe just focused on increased sustainable development that considers mitigation? More specifically what I struggle with is whether or not adaptation to climate change should be it’s own field of practice, with organizations devoted to its promotion. Or if simply increasing a community’s general level of development – infrastructure, economic productivity, social networks – will make communities more resilient, and hence better able to adapt to climate change.

I lean towards the side of separate but connected. To me, the fact that climate change impacts are already being felt in vulnerable communities, and the reality that international development is at times a slow-moving field, an explicit focus on adaptation seems necessary. But perhaps in the vein of sustainability and long-term view of development, it should still be a concept for international development agencies to struggle with and incorporate into their more general initiatives.

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Climate refugees?


“One of the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.”

This was the prediction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the very first Assessment Report, published in 1990. Over 20 years, and four more assessment reports later, it appears that this global consortium of scientists was on to something. As the impacts of climate change become more tangible, threatening livelihoods and physical space, environmentally-motivated migration is on the rise. While an international conversation has begun on the issue, and terms like “climate refugees” begin to make their way into our vernacular, the international community seems unprepared for this new type of migration.

Given the reality that anthropogenic climate change is itself a contentious idea in some circles, the jump to claim that forced migration is occurring directly from climate change impacts is difficult. Migration motivated by environmental conditions is not a new story. The practice has been essential to human evolution and survival over the course of history. Consider pastoralist tribes throughout the world who have sustained a culture based on moving with the ebbs and flows of resource quality and availability. Contemporary large scale movements of people due to environmental conditions are also not hard to call to mind. In both developed and developing nations, natural disasters like cyclones and floods occur frequently and are almost always associated with mass displacement.

So is climate induced migration any different? In my eyes… yes. Absolutely. When people flee their homes because of an imminent natural disaster, they typically do so with the intent to return. A cyclone may cause huge damage to infrastructure and homes, and require a rebuilding process, but these types of fast-onset natural disasters do not typically cause permanent displacement. Environmental harm due to climate change, however, is different. The impacts of climate change are slow-onset, meaning they build over time and are not really expected to culminate in a headline-grabbing, one-time event. Instead, phenomena like desertification, erosion, land loss and changes in soil fertility are gradual processes that eventually reach a tipping point when they render a place unlivable. Deteriorating environmental conditions caused by climate change are more likely to effect spatial geography, livelihoods, and production patterns in a way that may permanently preclude the ability for communities of people to survive there.  Continue reading

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The Silver Lining in the Smog Cloud


The Chinese government has announced a 1.7 trillion yuan overhaul of environmental regulation and industrial oversight as its next step in combating China’s severe smog problem. The details of the plan will be announced to the public in mid-August, but it is expected to include the usual elements of restricting smog-creating industries, clamping down on travel in personal automobiles, and encouraging a shift away from the still coal-heavy power grid to cleaner alternative energy sources. Having only just recently acknowledged the dangers posed by the atmospheric levels of so-called PM2.5 – microscopic particles fewer than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can bypass many types of artificial filters and lodge in lung tissue – the government is intent on reducing emission levels in the now famously filthy air. Frustration has grown among Chinese citizens, who have perceived the government as unwilling to combat the production of PM2.5. This anger is further exacerbated by the fact that the commonly available cotton breathing masks often seen in Chinese cities do very little to protect the wearers, and foreign-made, high-quality industrial masks are difficult or impossible to get for most people. Earlier this year the government finally settled on a Chinese name for the pernicious particle (xi keli wu, or “fine particle”) so that the country could have its own constructive conversation about it in Chinese. Continue reading

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