By Emily Klotz
“The answer of course is…drumroll…no.”1 In response to the question of whether we should adapt to climate change, Andrew Revkin, writer of the “Dot Earth” blog in The New York Times, gives the preceding answer. I understood his sarcastic response to imply two things: one, that rather than adapting to climate change we should be trying to mitigate and prevent climate change, and two, the issue of adapting lifestyles in response to climate change is not an imminent issue. He is absolutely right (mitigation and prevention should trump adaptation), but here is where the problem lies: who is “we”? I initially thought “we” referred to humans in general. However, in this video about adapting to climate change, Mr. Revkin, climate scientist Alex Hall, and environmental historian Jon Christensen fail to include all of humanity in their “we,” and focus primarily on the people living in developed countries, such as the United States. What about the majority of the world’s population that lives in developing nations?
Last spring I had the opportunity to conduct a research project on this very issue in northern Tanzania’s Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem with The School for Field Studies, and my research question was not should we adapt to climate change, but how do we adapt. The “we” in my project referred to pastoralists, or livestock herders, an extremely vulnerable occupation due to its direct reliance on vegetation and water resources and difficulty in purchasing food and water for livestock in local markets when resources are otherwise unavailable. My interviews within this population revealed that the majority of people were being affected by climate change through the following domino effect: increased weather variability (i.e. a decrease in the length of the rainy season and an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts) led to increased pressure on water and land resources, which led to decreased livestock health that resulted in decreased milk and meat production, which led to decreased income to livestock owners and, ultimately, negative effects on the health of livestock owners’ families.* In response to changing resource availability, I discovered that these pastoralists were adapting their livelihoods, whether or not they had a full and scientific understanding of climate change. Many had to travel (by foot) farther distances for longer periods of time with their livestock in order to find suitable grazing pasture, while others were diversifying their economic means primarily through adopting agricultural practices in order to increase income and food production for their family. This is not just a localized occurrence, but rather has been observed throughout different parts of Africa, as I found while doing further research for my project.
In this video, Christensen remarks, “we are pretty good at adapting.”1 However, adapting is difficult when there is a lack of modern technology, scientific knowledge, monetary resources, and government support, as is true in this area of northern Tanzania. To greatly over-generalize, people in the more industrialized areas of the world focus on mitigation strategies that incorporate reduced energy consumption, a switch to renewable energy, and a push towards sustainable development1 – which result in relatively small lifestyle changes to the beneficiaries of modern technology – whereas those in the rural and developing parts of the world are already adapting to climate change through more drastic lifestyle changes. Adapting is not just a conversation of hypotheticals as in this video, but is real and necessary in some parts of the world. The pastoralists who I interviewed did not have electricity to use less of or personal vehicles to drive more conservatively, and are therefore in need of adaptation strategies that are relevant to their way of life. Serious environmental and health issues are at stake. To conclude, I am not saying that we (and by “we” I do mean all of humanity) should merely adapt to climate change, but rather I am trying to make the point that some of us are already being forced to.
* Note: Admittedly, I did not have the empirical evidence to prove changes in weather patterns, vegetation structure, income, and human health specifically for this area when writing my research paper. However, my data was based on the personal experiences and observations of pastoralists who had lived in this area for at least five years. In my classroom in Boston, I study climate change in graphs and data, but the pastoralists I interviewed actually experience the effects of climate change in their day-to-day lives.
- Revkin, Andrew. “Exploring Climate Resilience and Climate Sense.” Dot Earth. The New York Times. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.