Author: Edward W. Manning, Ottawa.
Note: this is based loosely on an article written originally in 1994 in the context of sustainable development by the author and revised to address the current challenges posed by a rapidly changing climate.
About 4000 years ago, in the Valley of Tehuacan, Mexico, corn was first domesticated. Archaeological evidence, in the form of corn cobs found in the ashes of fires in caves along the valley walls clearly show the progression of domestication as selective breeding yielded larger and larger specimens. But over time the climate has become still drier, while the hybrid varieties’ demands for moisture have increased. At some time in the distant past the farmers began irrigation as an adaptation strategy. This began as channelling of water from artesian seeps on the valley walls. Use levels exceeded the replenishment rates and soon it was necessary to deepen the wells – to tunnel further into the mountainside to reach the receding water table. With hand tools, each year the farmers deepened the tunnels, which by the 20th century in some cases are several kilometres in length. Much of the social structure of the valley is built around the need to work together to maintain the tunnels and the distributary system for the water. While this has been a form of forced adaptation, there are lessons which can be taken from this historic case.
Four main lessons can be gleaned from this example:
- adaptation is not new – it is a normal strategy followed by people who wish to safeguard what they value – in this case their source of food and water.
- once a strategy is chosen, it may lock individuals or societies into a particular solution – even for many generations and it is nearly impossible to change course.
- if more was known about the ecological/economic system in advance, perhaps other options (such as different choice of crops, or even migration to another area) might have been chosen.
- The capacity to accurately predict what is likely to occur in future is not much stronger now than it was when their decisions were made centuries ago
Individuals in that society, and in our current times appear to act to adapt only when pressed to do so by changes which are already taking place, or whose effects and implications are blatantly apparent in the near future. Work to bring information on environmental concerns to small businesses, shows that managers of such enterprises, including farms, many forest operations, and most tourism enterprises are not well informed regarding major external and long-term factors such as climate change, global economic restructuring, or loss of global biodiversity. Yet it is clear that these major external factors may have profound implications for their operations. Many such individuals and firms act only in reaction to messages received directly in the form of lost shoreline, crop failures, new legal restrictions, or market messages related to the cost of capital for investments with changed perceived risk levels. General understanding of the existence of, or implications of larger scale trends, particularly those which are expressed in probabilistic terms, is very poor. As a result, concerns relating to this genre of issues are likely to be phrased in terms of questions like the following:
- will it affect my profitability in the next five years?
- does it place my current capital investment at risk due to either risk of physical damage or loss of market?
- will this possible change limit the length of time I can expect to gain from a new investment?
- how much will it cost me to insure against the possible occurrence of this event/trend?
- can you tell me where I should build or plant to take advantage of the new conditions, and where I should avoid doing so? (e.g. where will the new shoreline be, so I can buy it now?)
- how can I gain a competitive advantage from this?
- are there new marketing opportunities to gain from this?
- Where can I get reliable information on the future as it affects me?
Because of a generally short-term view, questions tend to focus on current plans and actions, particularly those with visible payoffs in the near future.
A key step which can be employed to advocate adaptation solutions may be to use familiar examples of adaptation strategies already in use to help deal with situations of risk. The insurance analogy is instructive, with many examples available which can be expressed in terms of common business practice. Clearly additional information is then required to at least roughly estimate levels of risk or uncertainty. How are decision-makers to be convinced that global change is a real risk, of similar magnitude to, for example, current risk of being hit by a meteorite, being flooded, or being robbed? While some larger firms are increasingly developing adaption plans in the form of ( e.g business continuity plans for catastrophic events, A Guide to Business Continuity Planning ), the current models for such response seldom deal with longer term or not immediately catastrophic events like changes in climate or resources.
Identifying Key Values and Sensitivities
The objective of the adaptation exercise is to alter decision-making behaviour before it becomes necessary to change due to imminent crisis, or before options for action become limited. But this requires information in several areas where it may not now exist or be readily accessible. These include:
- means to clarify goals. All adaptation strategies occur in order to help achieve particular goals. Any choice of strategies, and any means of evaluation of options cannot occur in isolation of a clear definition of social or individual goals. In the Mexican valley, the choice to stay rather than migrate led to a particular strategy. At the same time, inability to agree on specific goals (how many degrees warming, or specific economic or employment goals need not be a barrier, as the same behaviours are likely to respond to a range of futures to reduce risk. You need not know the precise height of a sea level rise to start building a seawall particularly if it is designed to be robust in a range of not impossible future scenarios.
- understanding of productivity response relationships. Seldom do we clearly understand the sensitivity of the full range of products and services which we value to changes in the environment. Yet global change can alter many of the biological and physical attributes upon which the products and services are based. In the tourism industry, for example, little work has been done to clarify the sensitivity of tourist choices to real or perceived changes in attributes of destination environments. How sensitive are long-distance tourists to changes in water quality or temperature? How vital are particular plant or animal species to the tourist experience? If they are all but eliminated will the tourism stop? If they migrate, will the tourists follow or seek substitutes? In agriculture or forestry some sensitivities are better known and may be spatially modelled. It is then possible to plant perennials in areas where acceptable growing conditions are likely to exist for the species to succeed under a wider range of possible futures.
- Understanding thresholds. Linked to the sensitivities discussed above is the question of thresholds. These can be biophysical (a point beyond which the animal or plant will no longer breed) or socio-economic (the point where it no longer makes economic sense to continue). These are not well known, yet mark critical points which need to be understood if managers are to deal effectively with them. Barbados, a small island with low precipitation, has done an excellent job in capturing most of the rainfall which falls on its surface and channelling it into underground aquifers for storage until use. Still, use levels, given the level of development of the island stress the available supply. Given the clear supply limits, even small reductions in precipitation due to global change can put the island over the threshold – there is no buffer. This may dictate quite different long term development strategies, if the risks can be clarified. Some work done by small islands like Barbados has helped to clarify many of the areas of risk: most nations did specific analysis of this under their Initial Communications on Climate change and some adaptation has followed, including new coastal zoning for many as well as work on structural design for those building in higher risk areas.
Matching Long-term Adaptation to Current Advantage
A key to gaining acceptance of adaptation strategies can be in defining those steps which also bring short term benefits. Why not do something which makes sense now but also helps reduce exposure to future risk? Build the new wing farther away from the shore, make the new seawall a bit more robust, plant a type of tree which takes advantage of current markets but which is also resilient if or when temperatures are higher. Timing is also key: take advantage of the need to replace infrastructure or buildings by integrating risk reducing technologies into the retrofit program. All these are means towards adaptation – both to an increasing environmental understanding and may also respond to the demand that to reduce their contribution to environmental degradation. (e.g. coastal protection and setbacks) All these strategies are can also be advantageous, now, to the company; a green image for a company creates good will. Buy-in by industry will be much more likely if there are synergies like these.
Case studies of best practice showing current gain by doing things which also benefit the environment and maintain a robust system or reduce risk will be critical to demonstrating to others that this approach really works.
Changing the Institutional Framework
Many of our current institutions impede the identification and adoption of adaptation strategies. One of the key challenges for further research will be to identify the key barriers to adaptation. The areas of concern include:
- matching the decision-making and planning units to the scale of the phenomena with which they must deal. This may mean a re-examination of our institutions in terms of regional, sectoral and issue orientations.
- developing better information support structures, providing consistent (and trusted) baseline information and indicators for important factors.
- re-examination of legislative (regulatory) instruments to eliminate strictures which prohibit or limit adaptive actions. Development of means to build flexibility into the regulatory process.
- identification of policy instruments which inhibit adaptation or which reward counter-adaptive behaviour. (such as subsidies for practices which increase risks or encourage practices which are not robust; e.g. building codes)
- identification of areas of potential collaboration and synergy where joint action can increase the robustness of the system. (for example, tourism is one of the few industries with a positive cash flow towards the south – this may be able to be managed as a catalyst to promotion of sound adaptation strategies both in the industry an in host nations. Similarly, integrated planning between renewable resource sectors may yield flexibilities including shifts in areas occupied or developed over time).
The objective of adaptation strategies is to aid in risk-reducing our future. It will occur only if individuals, firms and governments can be convinced that the need is real, and that there are effective models and means to follow to gain from adaptive behaviour before it becomes an essential and only option. As it becomes increasingly clear that efforts to mitigate major risks such as climate change, water shortages, or contamination of the seas are likely to fall short, and unacceptable impacts are probable, the role of sound foresight and the development and realization of adaptation strategies will become ever more important as a tool to support more sustainable planning and management at global, national, regional and local scales. Sound risk management should be an integral part of governance, and adaptation will be the central tool for this to happen.
Bio: The author, Ted Manning is the President of Tourisk Inc, a full Member of the Club of Rome and former Chair of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome. A specialist is sustainable development, he has worked in more than 50 countries on environmental projects.