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Climates of Adaptation and Justice

It’s a curious fact that nowadays I have to teach students that “adaptation” was until recently a bad word in certain environmental circles. For many climate scientists and advocates, to talk of adapting to climate change was tantamount to surrender. We could only talk about mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

This is odd, of course, because one could extend slightly the famous dictum of evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” to observe that very little in the affairs of nature and human beings makes sense except in the light of adaptation. Adapting is what species do, including, and arguably especially, Homo sapiens, through evolution and intention. 

Now we know that we are already beginning to see and feel some of the effects of climate change, and more are “baked in,” as the scientists like to say, no matter how quickly we cut back on pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere. Even if we are successful in reaching “carbon neutrality,” as the ambitious Paris accord aspires to do, sometime around mid-century, average temperatures will have climbed around 2 degrees Celsius, and the sea level will have risen about five feet or more by the end of this century. Perturbations in weather, in hurricane and drought patterns, in seasonal cycles of plant life, and in the behavior of animals, including humans, that we still little understand today, will bedevil the planet. And most people under 40 today will live to experience all of this. 

That’s why we have to talk about adaptation. 

The new season of “Earth Focus” from KCET, LinkTV, and the Thomson Reuters Foundation begins to fill this gap with in-depth stories about adaptation around the world: 

From San Francisco, where city officials are planning to spend up to $5 billion to reinforce a seawall built a century ago to protect downtown from rising waters, to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where landslides and floods triggered by deforestation and extreme weather threaten lives and property on a regular basis.

From the Central Valley of California, where people who live in the richest agricultural region in the world go without clean drinking water, to Mount Boutmezguida in Morocco, where nets are being strung to capture water from fog for drought-plagued communities on the edge of the Sahara. 

From Tijuana, where climate refugees from Haiti are stuck on the border trying to migrate to the United States, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where a province worth of nomadic herders crowd into informal settlements, pushed to the edge of the capital city every year by extreme weather. 

 Aerial image of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. (medium) | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Aerial image of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

From the shores of Madagascar, where communities dependent on dwindling fisheries are fashioning new ways of cooperating to ensure their survival, to offshore San Diego, where new methods of fish farming are being invented to feed a hungry world. 

From Louisiana, where indigenous residents of Isle Jean Charles are being forced to move inland behind levees in order to ensure their tribal future, to Los Angeles, where scientists and residents are working together to understand how the city can be a better habitat for non-humans in the future, too. 

S1 E1: Sea Level Rising: Living with Water

These are all stories about adaptation, which includes adjusting ourselves to new or changed circumstances, as well as modifying our circumstances to make a better fit for ourselves. These are stories about technological innovation as well as cultural changes, stories driven by big institutions as well as individual decisions, stories about people changing and about species changing around us.

And it’s about time that they’re told.

I can’t help wondering why it took so long for us to begin to tell these stories, and whether that delay has impeded our understanding of important differences in adaptation around the world. Some places and people will face profound challenges adapting to a changing world, while those who have benefited most can afford to invest billions in protecting themselves, and believe that they’re solving the problems that they’ve contributed the most to making.

By pairing stories from California with stories from around the world, this season of “Earth Focus” shines a light on these differences in a subtle, suggestive way. The documentaries invite comparison, inspire reflection on our commonalities, and evoke empathy. They want us to care about what happens elsewhere. They want us to see that even in the toughest, tragic situations, people are a resilient bunch. We can and will adapt, endure, maybe even thrive. 

We could, and should, go further. 

When landslides and floods hit Freetown in Sierra Leone in 2017, hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands were displaced. The damages exceeded $30 million and it cost $82 million to resettle residents for a total cost of around $112 million, conservatively estimated. If you add the billions of dollars invested in recent years in new real estate developments in San Francisco’s Mission Bay area, including a new arena for the Golden State Warriors basketball team, to the billions of dollars that will be spent on new seawalls and raising and reinforcing the city’s historic seawall in the coming years, you could quickly get to a figure nearly 100 times greater than the Freetown total. And San Francisco has fewer people than Freetown in a bigger area.

Man looking onto the site of a mudslide that killed and displaced hundreds of people.  | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Man looking onto the site of a mudslide that killed and displaced hundreds of people. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Here’s another way to look at these differences of investment in adaptation around the world. 

As part of the Paris accord, the United States committed $3 billion to a Green Climate Fund, established to help pay for adaptation measures in developing countries that are less able to afford these investments, have contributed far less to climate change, and have benefited much less from economic development in the fossil fuel age. President Obama contributed $1 billion to this global fund. President Trump has contributed nothing. At this point, the Green Climate Fund for adaptation worldwide stands at $2.6 billion, with contributions from the United States and other developed nations, or roughly half of what the city of San Francisco alone plans to spend on improving its own seawall. 

It’s enough to make me wonder if one of the reasons people didn’t want to talk about adaptation for so long is that it forces us to recognize that we’re not all in the same boat. When we talk about mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouses gases, it’s still possible to talk about “us” with something of a straight face. In order to stop global warming, stabilize Earth’s climate, and avoid potentially much worse consequences in the future, virtually everybody on the planet will have to change their ways in the coming decades.

But when we talk about adaptation, it’s clear that there’s no global “we.” While San Francisco is concerned that Warriors fans don’t get their feet wet on the way to a basketball game, families in Morocco are ecstatic to have clean water harvested from fog running from one tap in homes where they’ve never had enough water to mop the floors they walk on. If you’re already in California, you don’t even have to go halfway around the world to see these differences. Just visit the Central Valley, where residents of small towns like Lanare near Fresno haven’t had access to clean drinking water for years.

People working on a sustainable sea cucumber farm in Madagascar.  | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
People working on a sustainable sea cucumber farm in Madagascar. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

When we expand our field of vision and care to include other species, we face other challenges in addition. There may be some win-wins, such as the local marine protected areas along the coast of Madagascar, which help protect populations of fish that sustain local communities. But in other cases there will be tradeoffs. In Los Angeles, harvesting more local stormwater, cutting back on water use, and recycling wastewater will mean less water for the Los Angeles River and the plants and animals that live there now and could thrive in a revitalized riparian ecosystem in the heart of the city. Human adaptation, as history has shown, often isn’t what’s best for other species. 

That’s why the idea of “multispecies justice,” proposed by Ursula K. Heise in an “Earth Focus” episode focused on Los Angeles this season, offers intriguing possibilities for thinking about our current predicament. It puts the well-being of other species on par with our own well-being. It doesn’t offer any easy answers. But it suggests that the principles of justice — distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice — should extend to other species as we increasingly realize that we share our cities and our planet with them and our fates are intertwined. These principles have provided the basis for decades of work to extend environmental justice and equity, to recognize that environmental harms and benefits have not been evenly distributed, and to correct that. Multispecies justice is part of a cultural shift that is happening in many places, in many cultures, in many languages around the world as people are rethinking agriculture and diet, zoos and pet-keeping, horticulture and architecture. 

This extension of empathy — recognizing ourselves in others, placing ourselves in their place imaginatively — is an important part of what “Earth Focus,” like all great filmmaking, accomplishes. As we try to figure out how to adapt in the Anthropocene, this new epoch of life in which human beings have become a planetary force, empathy will be essential. So will justice for all — for humans and non-humans. 

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