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Friday, June 01, 2007
To reduce, or to adapt?
The debate that Nigel Lawson has so effectively ignited by arguing that we should concentrate on adapting to climate change rather than stopping it, is an interesting one and exactly mirrors a (less polarised) conversation I had a few weeks ago with one of the leading City investors in low carbon technology. It is foolish to claim that Lawson doesn't have a point. Climate change is happening, and even if we do manage to turn the ocean liner around, the emissions that we have already produced will continue to have an effect for many years, and it will be decades, if not longer, before the effect of any cutbacks we make now will be felt. And that's without even getting into the possible effect of feedback loops. It is not enough to put our collective heads in the sand, hope that the government legislates for carbon cuts and that the problem will go away.

So like it or not, we have to concentrate on adapting to the effects of a warming climate. Strategies for our water resources (rainwater and aquifers), for sea level rises, for extreme weather events, for agriculture, for buildings - all of these need to respond to the reality of ongoing climatic change. How will we grow crops, what kind of seed stocks will we need, how can we keep our buildings cool in summer, where will our water come from if it doesn't rain for four months of the year? These are enormous, but also solvable, challenges. They are opportunities for those who are entrepreneurial enough, but also ask tough questions about the way we manage our land and lifestyles on both macro and micro scales.

But just because we need to adapt doesn't mean that we shouldn't also look to cut our energy consumption where at all possible. The two are sides of the same coin; we need to get smarter in both directions, if maintaining our quality of life, and our economy, is to be sustainable at all. We need to use less and make better use of what we have. Water provides a really clear example: we should be implementing low-water agriculture and buildings, at the same time as collecting rainwater more efficiently for distribution, and recycling the water that we do use. On the issue of carbon, we can't just adapt our way out of climate change that is reaching unheard of speed, with unknown consequences. We have to cut our emissions as well as finding ways to cope better with the implications of what we've already done to the environment.

The other aspect of this approach is that it reduces the pressure to 'prove' or 'disprove' climate science (although, to be frank, one might think that the debate should be over). Solar flares or whatever your chosen theory, the world is getting hotter and we have to adapt to this. Also, whether or not carbon emissions are the primary cause of the heating, they certainly aren't helping, so cutting back on them is undeniably a good idea. We can't do anything about solar flares, so let's tackle the bit we can. It's a bit like genetic causes for obesity: you're not sure if you have them, but even if you might do, that doesn't excuse your overeating.

Finding the way forward to both reduce and adapt sounds like a double whammy for policymakers that is hard to stomach. But it is the only answer to the predicament we find ourselves in; and actually, reducing our consumption is simply one part of adaptation, and vice versa. Your business is asked to cut emissions by 25%? You do this through adapting: your building to require less airconditioning or lighting; your processes to require less refrigeration or heating, despite changing temperatures outside. What is more, for the public to see both aspects being addressed may make measures that tackle each side of this equation easier to stomach. It answers the frequent comment that 'at least global warming means decent summers' by saying yes: enjoy them, but here's a low-energy air-con system that you can use when it gets too hot, and a way for you to avoid that hosepipe ban by being smarter about your water, or by not needing a hosepipe in the first place.

The message should be not that the world is ending, but that it's changing; and here are the ways that we can, and must, adapt to both the good and the bad side of that.

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