By Will Bugler
The scariest thing about Halloween this year? Digesting the findings of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) most recent 2018 Living Planet report. The report shows that in the 40 short years between 1970 and 2014, more than 4,000 species of mammal, bird, fish reptile and amphibian are in decline. The average rate of decline of the species in the study? 60 percent. This astonishing loss of biodiversity presents a grave threat to human prosperity. The loss of wildlife and the ecosystems that support it will undermine any attempt to mitigate or adapt to climate change.
WWF’s report lists many factors for the decline, noting that just 25% of land on the planet has not been severely damaged by human activity. It also warns that this is likely to drop to just 10 percent by 2050 due to pollution, disease and climate change. The report was particularly striking in its timing, coming just weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report on climate change, which warned of the impacts that the world faces at 1.5 degrees of warming. The impacts included wiping out almost all of the world’s coral reefs and altering other fragile habitats and ecosystems.
These two reports together show that significant and far reaching change is necessary in order to protect the vital systems that we rely on to grow food, access fresh water, and power our lives. They also clearly imply that only a holistic approach to climate change adaptation will be effective in safeguarding human systems in the coming decades.
Broadly speaking, the purpose of adapting to climate change is to safeguard lives and livelihoods of people in the face of considerable changes to the climate system; many of which are now inevitable. This goal becomes impossible if we are unable to protect the ecosystems that support life. These may seem like straightforward statements of the obvious, however this does have implications for the way we respond to climate change.
Decision making on climate adaptation should be part of a much broader approach to socio-ecological protection. When making decisions about how best to adapt to climate related impacts such as flooding for example, a narrow, impact-specific approach might be to identify the threat (an overflowing river) and then come up with a cost-effective way to reduce the risk it poses to people and property (a flood barrier perhaps). Congratulations you have successfully reduced the risk of flooding – but have you increased the overall resilience of the people and the environment?
The flood barrier might have diverted the flood risk further downstream leading to flooding of a fragile ecosystem or farmland. It may have cut off vulnerable populations from accessing the market to sell their goods or reduced access to the river for fishermen, or it may provide a perverse incentive for people to build houses and property behind the barrier, increasing the potential impact of a future, more severe flood event.
Finding solutions to climate change that build long-term resilience, requires decisions that are taken in line with a coherent, systemic approach to strengthening ecosystems and protecting the lives of the most vulnerable people. Decisions that reduce climate risk or indeed cut carbon emission at the expense of either people or the environment are self-defeating.