Climate Change Is Inevitable. Here’s How We Must Adapt – Parag Khanna

Eighty years ago, the American government began the mammoth scientific undertaking of developing fully operational nuclear weapons. At its peak, the Manhattan Project employed 130,000 people, and its total cost ran to $2 billion (equivalent to $23 billion today). Nowadays, global efforts to mitigate climate change are reaching an even greater scale. Governments are pledging to slash greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050, investments into renewable energy now account for 70% of funding for new electricity generation, economies are being restructured around the taxation and trading of carbon emissions, climate tech accounts for 6% of early-stage VC funding, and geo-engineering projects may modify our atmosphere to reflect solar radiation or change the biological composition of our oceans to better capture and store carbon.
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These are the new Manhattan Projects—aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. But as existentially necessary as they are, they are insufficient at adapting us to the inevitable climate shocks already unfolding. Our environment is a complex system, always changing in new directions, not snapping back to familiar parameters from centuries past. It will not adapt to us—we will have to adapt to it.

The case for adaptation

The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement and recent COP-26 summit in Glasgow represent a sea-change in commitments to mitigating climate change. 191 nations have pledged to make all efforts to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees celsius, and more than $100 billion has been pledged to help developing countries transition their economies. Still, the fact remains that climate conditions will get worse before they get better—if they ever recover at all.

The most recent IPCC report states that we are on track to exceed the 1.5 degree target by 2040, if not sooner. Already, extreme weather phenomena such as cyclones and heat waves are becoming mass casualty events. The impending collapse of crucial oceanic currents coupled with irreversible sea level rise are a stark warning that there are effects from our past behavior already baked into our future irrespective of today’s mitigation efforts.

By focusing almost exclusively on mitigation strategies that will take decades to have impact, policy makers are acting myopically. Building wind farms in America and Europe does little to help flood victims in Mississippi or Henan. Closing coal plants in China doesn’t stop sea level rise in the Bay of Bengal. Much of the world population needs some form of adaptation policy now, not after we bring emissions under control.

Climate adaptation—efforts to build defenses against climate effects in our infrastructure, or to relocate populations to climate resilient areas—cannot remain the neglected sibling of climate mitigation any longer. Currently, such measures represent an alarmingly low 5-6% of total climate-related finance. For climate change policy to be humane, it must recognise that climate change already exists, and that we have a pressing need to adapt to it.

What is (and isn’t) being done?

Climate mitigation investments do not have to be expensive to be effective. For example, high albedo surfacing has lowered temperatures in buildings and on roads. In New York City, 9.2 million square feet of rooftops have been painted white in order to reflect more sunlight and reduce local temperature rise. The greenhouse saturated town of Almeira, Spain, is cooler than the surrounding region due to its significant sunlight reflection. Building insulation materials such as those deployed by Knauf and other companies can make homes and offices warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The U.K. government announced a scheme in 2020 to provide £2 billion in grants to low-income households to re-insulate their homes.

Matt Rourke—APJames Peterson with Bio Neighbors applies a coating of Acrymax to the roof of a row home in Philadelphia in August 2010. The idea of painting roofs white has become something of a social movement, one that many believe could be a huge help in stopping global warming.

In addition to harnessing renewable solar and wind resources for local energy production, the latest battery cell technologies can also power more reliable power grids so that poor populations can benefit from cooling technologies. For example, Vanadium flow batteries (pioneered by RedT Energy, VFlow Tech, and Vizn) last 4-5 times longer than solid state batteries, making them ideal for grid energy storage. Such projects can be used on both small and large scale projects. Global Himalayan Expeditions, a social impact tourism firm, has electrified 22 villages in India’s Himalayas. The 95 microgrids they established rely heavily on harnessing solar energy, and subsequently storing it in batteries to provide a consistent flow of electricity to 5,130 Himalayan community residents, and paving the way for them to install heating in their homes.

As megadroughts and drying rivers afflict everywhere from the American southwest to much of the Middle East and Asia, water desalination and atmospheric water generation are also crucial technologies that can enable adaptation for billions of people. Together with the UAE’s utility DEWA, MIT is leading a drive to develop renewable powered water desalination that can create long-term, sustainable water supplies. Labourie, a small village in St. Lucia, implemented the Eastern Caribbean’s first mobile solar-powered desalination plant, successfully stabilising the island’s water supply. Smaller, off-grid, solar-powered atmospheric water generation panels are already commercially available, though more research is needed for these to be viable on a larger scale. Jalimudi, a village of 600 in Andhra Pradesh, India, has been supplied for over 12 years with water generated by atmospheric water generation. Previously, villagers had had to travel miles on a daily basis to fetch drinking water.

We could also engineer a new Green Revolution. Vertical farming, hydro and aquaponic agriculture, and plant and cell-based protein are fast-growing industries that allow for far more localized and “circular” food production rather than our far-flung agricultural supply chains that currently account for nearly 15 percent of global emissions. Vertical farming allows up to ten times more crop growth in a given area and fourteen times more growth cycles than traditional farming. AeroFarms, an indoor agriculture company based in New Jersey, is developing aeroponics, a cutting edge technique which uses mists to deliver nutrients to exposed plant roots. The technique could reduce water use by 98%, fertilizer use by 60%, and pesticide use by 100%. Within the next decade, cultured meats are due to reduce the energy and land required to produce meat by 45 and 99 percent, respectively. These developments allow us to control our food production more closely, freeing us from the mercy of the weather in growing our food. And even where farmers remain exposed to meteorological volatility, genetically modified seeds capable of producing crops under water-stressed conditions can help them weather difficult growing seasons.

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Approximately 2.4 billion people live within 100 kilometers of a shoreline, with a density three times greater than non-coastal areas, making greater investments in coastal defenses an essential adaptation measure. Allowing mangrove forests to re-grow and designating areas as floodplains can absorb and direct rising tides. In Senegal, the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development has made funds available for the reforestation of mangroves in the country’s Fatick region. The benefits of this project are threefold, as mangroves protect against coastal flooding, stop soil erosion that makes these areas uninhabitable, and promote the development of marine communities.

The Netherlands’ Delta Works and 9-kilometer long Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier have been called the eighth wonder of the world, while South Korea’s Saemangeum Seawall protects residents of Gunsan City while also expanding fertile land. Despite the returns on investment from adequate coastal protection, iconic cities such as Venice have made only sub-par efforts such as the floating barrier called MOSE which has failed to prevent significant flooding of St. Mark’s Square. Miami has delayed serious investments in a seawall for cosmetic reasons, even though it would protect $145 billion worth of real estate currently threatened. The extreme scenario is represented by megacities such as Indonesia’s Jakarta, which plans to relocate itself as the country’s capital to the island Borneo. Sir David King, chairman of the U.K.’s Climate Crisis Advisory Group, believes that London will have to relocate as well.

Migration as adaptation

If we can move cities, we can certainly move people. I argue in my new book that the most significant climate adaptation measure is large-scale population resettlement to climate resilient areas. An estimated 150,000 people die every year due to climate change related events, and of the 40.5 million new displacements in 2020, 30.7 million came from natural disasters, whereas only 9.8 million were caused by conflict and violence.

The World Bank’s series of “Groundswell” reports, as well as estimates from the WHO, suggests that more than 700 million people will be internally displaced due to climate phenomena by 2040. For every one degree temperature rise, scientists predict that one billion people are displaced from the optimal “climate niche” of latitudes to which we have become acclimated.

Yet very few countries take climate migration seriously. Only this year has the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped up funding for its Hazard Mitigation Assistance program, and together with the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began to examine large-scale resettlement programs such as the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. Larger resettlement grants to individual families can help to offset the collapse in property values in affected areas, but people can also be relocated to climate resilient states such as Michigan that have become more affordable as they’ve become more depopulated.

Either adapt proactively, or we will, down the line, be forced to act reactively. The recent floods in Germany, causing €2 billion Euros of property damage, 196 deaths, and thousands of displaced people, prove this point. The German government cannot prevent future flooding, but it can undertake adaptive measures such as moving residents to higher ground and reinforcing flood defenses to ensure that when it does recur, people are protected.

China has already undertaken comprehensive resettlement programs for vulnerable areas such as Guizhou province, which has faced extensive deforestation, soil erosion, and extreme weather, relocating 2 million people between 2012 and 2020. Even though domestic climate migrants face short-term challenges such as higher unemployment, skills training programs have contributed to restoring social mobility. In the long run, people are better off having relocated than being trapped in survival mode.

Nowhere on the COP-26 agenda will you find migration as a critical solution to the challenge of climate adaptation, even though it is the single most obvious and effective measure we can take right now. This is of course because sovereign governments don’t want to see their borders overwhelmed by climate refugees. But the world’s two largest countries by landmass—Canada and Russia—would both benefit from having more migrants reinforce their ailing demographics and efforts at economic diversification. Canada is already doing so, bringing in 400,000 new residents each year, with a plan to more than double its population to 100 million in the coming decades. Unless Russia does the same, Canada would have a larger population than Russia by late this century.

It is a cruel irony that some of the world’s most rapidly depopulating countries have become our greatest agricultural breadbaskets. As of this year, Russia is the world’s largest wheat producer. As temperatures rise, its vast terrain is becoming more livable (if less predictable). If gradually undertaken and well-managed, Russia and the world would benefit from the country learning from Canada’s example.

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There are many other “climate oasis” zones in the world. rom the Great Lakes to eastern Turkey, and the Upper Mekong to Japan, there are more than enough climate resilient locations on Earth to which to resettle the 2-3 billion people who may require it in the turbulent era to come.

The UN commitment to mobilise $100 billion of climate finance for developing countries is an important step in helping them leapfrog over the path of hydrocarbon powered industry towards renewable energy, but it does not address the need to provide equivalent support for societal resilience. A recent World Bank report found that spending just $1.8 trillion on adaptive measures in the next decade could produce $7.1 trillion worth of benefits. Ignoring these measures only raises the costs that countries face by an estimated $70-$100 billion annually by 2050. Adaptation, therefore, is a sound investment.

Adaptation measures should also be incorporated into future climate agreements, both in order to create metrics for progress as well as a forum for sharing best practices in protecting vulnerable populations. Not focusing on climate adaptation is a mistake that could cost millions of lives in the coming century. It may well be too late to future-proof much of our industry and infrastructure against the wrath of climate change, but we can still future-proof ourselves.

Adapted from Parag Khanna’s new book, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us

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