As We Adapt to Climate Change, Who Gets Left Behind?

By Robert Jensen

Published in YES Magazine · November, 2015

A new documentary shows planning options to mitigate a new climate, but questions about the global South are largely ignored.

Climate change is a global process that plays out on the ground in dramatically different ways based on where, and how, we live on that globe. How human communities will adapt to global warming’s effects will depend not only on geography, but also—like so many things in the modern world—on money.

The documentary Weather Gone Wild reports on inventive ways officials and ordinary people are adapting to the predictable unpredictability of the more extreme weather we are experiencing—and will continue to experience, more intensely—due to climate change.

The adaptations, both present and planned, that the Canadian film documents range from the mundane (installing backwater valves to protect homes from sewage backup during floods) to the fantastical (floating cities in which people won’t have to worry about being flooded). The film moves from Canadian cities that have seen record floods in recent years, to New York City and the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, to the disappearing beaches of South Florida, with a stop in the Netherlands, ground zero for coping with too much water.

It’s only at the end of the film that the narrator reminds viewers that however threatening the effects of wilder weather in the affluent global North, it will be in the poorer global South that the human suffering will be most dramatic. Flooding in Toronto’s streets is a city planning and engineering problem for which we can imagine solutions, but sea-level rise in Bangladesh means large-scale migration and death that we are afraid to imagine.

Near the end of the documentary, the wonky focus on climate-change adaptation gives way—for just a moment—to this moral question. Climatologist Gordon McBean, a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario and president of the International Council for Science, points out that the nations facing the greatest threats have the fewest resources with which to cope with climate change.

“So, where’s our social sense of justice?” McBean says, implicitly questioning whether the affluent will share their resources.

The answer—based on the actions of the wealthiest nations, not their rhetoric—is too painful to say out loud. What’s justice have to do with it? So far, nothing.

“Anyway, I’m getting emotional,” McBean says, pausing ever so briefly, apparently checking an instinct to cry. “Shouldn’t do that. I’m a scientist, right?”

The scene was a missed opportunity to do a community service: allowing viewers to grieve collectively. Weather Gone Wild does a serviceable job of addressing its narrowly defined subject, in this case the planning options and technologies for adapting to the consequences of climate change. It’s a cheap shot to criticize any one film or book for what it doesn’t address, and this documentary isn’t a meditation on moral and political questions. Rather, the documentary’s brief closing reflection on wealth inequality raises the question of what adaptation means, to whom.

Billions have been pledged to a United Nations Green Climate Fund to help so-called developing countries cope with climate change, though the United States and other countries have failed to meet their pledges, and progress is painfully slow. Barring a worldwide revolution that addresses centuries of imperial crimes and the resulting disparities, the world’s adaptation to climate change in the coming decades is going to reflect that inequality. We live in nation-states that are only theoretically accountable to universal moral and legal standards, within a global capitalism that doesn’t take into account the lives of poor people or the health of the ecosphere. Our political and economic systems not only have responded inadequately, but also are designed in ways that discourage the actions necessary to prevent catastrophe.

So, the “we” in discussions of how we can adapt, regardless of whether spoken aloud, really means those of us who live in societies with the wealth that makes talk of adaptation relevant. Referring to most of the nations of the global South, McBean pointed out: “They can’t adapt. They have no resources to adapt. And they can’t reduce their emissions because they’re already trivial anyway.”

If it didn’t seem so monstrous, we would describe as “ironic” this reality that those with the least responsibility for climate change will suffer the most. But the term fails to capture the scope of the failure of our political and economic systems, and our collective moral failure to change them.

There was a time in the environmental movement when people discouraged talk of adaptation, out of a fear that if we moved too quickly to focus on how we were going to cope with climate change, we would give up on mitigation, on reducing emissions. That time has passed; as we continue to work on mitigation, it would be irresponsible not to pursue adaptation strategies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report released last year concluded not only that sustained reductions of greenhouse gases are necessary to avoid catastrophe but also that even with such reductions, some effects of climate change can’t be reversed and will be felt for centuries. Even the climate-science consensus, typically cautious in prediction, is clear about opportunities already lost.

We know that some human beings will adapt to what is coming. What we don’t know is how many people will have access to the resources necessary to adapt in humane ways. The different fates of affluent and ordinary people (a distinction that correlates strongly with white/non-white) during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans gives us a preview. In the somewhat detached language of scholarly research—this from the June 2015 issue of Population and Environment—“Social inequality has been identified as an important contributor to increasing the vulnerability of communities.”

We should abandon any magical thinking that pretends human nature and entrenched political/economic systems will change overnight and lead to global solidarity. But we can continue the difficult work for social justice and ecological sustainability simultaneously, not because we believe in fantasies of a world repaired, but because of the need to hold on to our humanity in a broken world. If we can’t save the whole world, we can commit to accomplishing all that can be accomplished within the limits of the real world.

Captured on film, McBean’s emotional reaction—an urge to cry out—is sensible, for scientists and everyone else. His commitment to pushing on, through the grief, to keep working on mitigation and adaptation also is sensible, for us all.