Perhaps I am in the minority but I enjoy planning. In fact sometimes I prefer planning to do a fun activity, and anticipating how much fun that activity might be, than actually doing the activity when the time comes. Yet I thoroughly dislike planning for the possibility of something bad happening. I recently had to buy health insurance and although I value my health I didn't enjoy having to consider my potential ill health. Inevitably one starts to become paranoid and worry about all of the things that accompany a less than optimal lifestyle - am I being complacent if I don't get the highest level of cover? In any case, spending money on health insurance will only be worth it if something bad happens so I have no real desire to get value for money. To policymakers, businesses and communities, adaptation to climate change often assumes this annoying, somewhat perverse characteristic. The more the climate changes, the greater the value of investing in adaptation measures. Unless the climate changes significantly over the coming years and decades, the effort and expenditure incurred to ensure communities and ecosystems are resilient to change will appear extraneous. The very real threat of maladaptation is something which can often be underplayed within the climate policy community. Furthermore, the risk of maladaptation is heightened for projects in developing countries where vulnerable communities are usually more sensitive to the misallocation of resources. The precautionary principle is often brought to bear in climate change mitigation and adaptation policy (e.g. Green, 2008). The possibility of large catastrophes associated with unmitigated climate change is seemingly reason enough to undertake measures to reduce the risk. As an analogy, climate policies are often likened to the process of buying insurance. In a presentation of the IPCC SREX report at the University of Cape Town in November 2011, Dr Kristie Ebi used the analogy that motorists purchase vehicle insurance to protect themselves from the relatively low probability/high consequence event of experiencing a road accident. What she may have been unaware of is that only 35% of motorists in South Africa are currently insured. There is currently no legal requirement to purchase vehicle insurance in South Africa and the premiums are often unaffordable to people with low incomes. Though not a perfect analogy, this serves to demonstrate that perceptions of climate risk and how people value measures to reduce risk need to be understood and interpreted within the context of the local environment and societal conditions. For global GHG emissions reductions policies, I personally think the precautionary principle carries more weight. The potential impacts of unabated anthropogenic GHG induced warming over the coming decades and centuries are of course uncertain but seem unlikely to be anything other than hugely disruptive to humans and the biosphere. The negative effects of transforming our global energy model and consumption patterns seem minor in comparison. However, we ought to be wary of invoking the precautionary principle when considering adaptation options, particularly in a developing country context. There is a delicate balance to be struck between reducing vulnerability to current (and future) climate variability and preserving resources to address other societal stresses. It appears advantageous to invest in soft rather than hard adaptation measures (Hallegatte, 2009) given a limit to resources and an appreciation of the vast uncertainties associated with the regional and local impacts of climate change. Reducing, or rather exploring, the climatic uncertainties is a key goal for climate scientists but such efforts will be in vain unless the adaptation community is able to make plans which embrace uncertainty. Moreover, the climatic uncertainties do not exhaust the uncertainty space. To establish whether or not a particular adaptation measure is likely to be truly beneficial (does not significantly risk maladaptation), each of the social, ethical, political and environmental dimensions need to be thoroughly investigated.
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