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Climate change, mitigation and adaptation: what are we supposed to do, exactly?

June 29, 2013

I knew I was in trouble the moment I read the post.

These days, my mind is like an car engine in the midst of traffic – idling most of the time. Every now and then, a bit of clear road opens up and off I go, but as I get older I find I’m less inclined to keep stamping on the throttle. Then suddenly, off I go again, as if someone else’s foot is pressing the pedal for me. This time, it was Neil, who I’m delighted to see visiting my blog again after my prolonged absence. He asked a question about climate change mitigation and adaptation which seemed too broad to me, so I asked him to qualify it, and he did. Now the engine is roaring, I have no idea where I’m going…yet…but by God, this is an interesting journey. Join me…


Neil’s questions are worth repeating here for context. First, in a comment below a recent post about Obama’s climate change plan, he asked a seemingly innocent thing:

How do you see climate change adaptation Graham? Does adaptation have a role here in the UK and if it does then what shape do you think it might take?

This was a big question. A lot of work. Stalling for time, I asked for some qualification; here’s his reply:

My personal and work interests [as an architect] in climate change overlap with little separation. So my question about adaptation comes from both an individual and professional place – not from a broad political or societal place.

I was asking because I am interested in the value you would put on preparing for the sort of possible future you identify in your 01-10-2013 post.

Is adaptation a continuing process of [for example] change, modification and preparation and on what premise do you start when the long term future can look bleak? Or maybe adaptation is to be avoided as it could be seen to undermine developing mitigation approaches. Or maybe adaptation is becoming as important as mitigation?

No way I could take this on in a mere comment.


OK, enough preamble. These are hard questions, but that’s why they are worth addressing.

To begin, we have to consider what future we’re likely to plan for, and my starting point is the inevitable. I do not believe we’re going to restrain climate change, and it will get very very bad. I’ve written about this at length; to summarise, even to achieve the (arbitrary) constraint of a 2 degree limit to temperature rise, the world would need, more or less, to give up consumerist capitalism, and that’s not going to happen.

Consumer capitalism (which I’m just going to call Consumerism from now on) is a very flawed system. It seems like an inevitable consequence of the industrial revolution; if you make stuff, you have to be able to sell it to someone. That requires a middle-class with disposable income. Unfortunately, it also requires an underclass to make the stuff, and for wages meagre enough that a profit can be turned. All profits are made by exploiting human labour, the only negotiable part of a manufacturing system, where energy, machines and premises are a fixed cost, for you and your competition. (Actually, that’s not entirely true; the other negotiable factor is quality).

That underclass can’t buy much stuff, because they don’t have enough disposable income. In a very shrewd move, the mill-owning class realised they could give more money instead to an emerging middle-class, then take it back from them in exchange for luxury goods, not just pots and pans.

The feudal disciplines of terror, violence, the poor house and the press gang were no longer appropriate, so a new way to control the masses was devised: debt. When the middle-classes didn’t have enough money to keep consumerism expanding, the rich people lent them some, and made profits out of that too, all the while inculcating guilt if debts were not serviced, and even more profits when they weren’t.

And the icing on the cake was a political trick that staved off revolutions for the most part; a reimagining of Grecian democracy, in which it appeared that the polity were finally being represented, their voices no longer mute, heads no longer bowed.

This scheme is what we in the developed countries think of as freedom. Everywhere else, it’s what the poor aspire to, largely thanks to the export of films and TV that first supplanted our dreams with the dreams our masters wanted us to have, and now supplant theirs too. Lasers in the jungle, as Paul Simon put it; poverty crouched in front of a screen glowing with promises made far away, in a mythical place, streets paved in gold. Will we never learn?


Inertia is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest, or of a body in motion to stay in motion. A super-tanker sailing at full speed can take 10 miles to stop.

People embody inertia too (mine was overcome by Neil’s question). In a world where most of us define ourselves by what we own; in a world where those who have, want more, and those who don’t have are filled with envy and longing, these malign influences are a force propelling us despite ourselves. We are educated to do two things: work and consume. The uneducated want to better themselves, so they can adopt most of the aspirations we’ve already had planted in our heads by advertising and a mean education, circumscribed by those who pay for it to suit their agenda.

Now, if climate change is an inevitable by-product of consumerism, and the whole world thinks consumerism is what we’re supposed to want, then our course is set like the biggest supertanker, and like Thatcher, not for turning. Right now, the principle conflict on the international stage is the demand made by developing countries to be allowed to develop, and to use fossil fuels to do so at a reasonable pace (i.e. before it’s too late). Implicit in this demand is that we lucky ones reduce our greenhouse gas output to offset the increasing emissions elsewhere.

I regret I must insist that this clearly isn’t going to happen, mainly because the mill-owners who started all this off know that no matter how bad it gets, they’ll be rich enough to adapt. The upshot is this: we career onwards, unable to halt our ‘progress’, and whatever climate change has in store, we’re going to find out. In spades.

The stage for my post is now set. The world we’re preparing for can be characterised by one certainty alone: it’s going to be chaotic. The speed with which the Arctic ice melted spoke to me of uncertainty; the way the weather consequently reacted seemed to suggest that we’re going to be ruled by unintended consequences, not an orderly progression of predictable phenomena.

Global warming is a mirror in which society is reflected. CO2 is doing to the climate what climate change is doing to society; both systems are being destabilised. If we are to prepare, what measures are appropriate if we don’t know what we’re preparing for? Should we invest our efforts in mitigation or adaptation, both or neither?

Well, in answer to Neil’s question on this very point, my opinion is this: there is no material difference between most actions taken to mitigate climate change, and actions taken to adapt to it.

Here’s just one example. To adapt to climate change, we are going to have to learn to consume less without feeling demeaned, without thinking that somehow our standard of living is being reduced – back to the dark ages, as the sceptics would have it. By consuming less, being less profligate, by making (and demanding) things last longer, by getting stuff repaired instead of replaced; all these are ways we must adapt to a future blighted by climate change. As I’m sure you’ve spotted already, they are also ways to mitigate the damage, because everything I just mentioned is less carbon intensive than its conventional alternative.

And one other point worth making: these measures will also save you money, another adaptive strategy when sustained employment is going to be far less reliable.


I think it presumptuous to devise a list of things we should do; in the practical sense, that’s for each person to decide, then abide by those decisions and make them work. As I’ve already said, it’s going to be chaos out there, so identifying specific remedies are out of the question unless I get out the Tarot cards (and I charge for that!).

What I can offer with confidence is a broad brush-stroke, one that in my view is possibly the most important strategy of all: education.

Climate change is a long-term problem, so it’s worth asking who is doing the adapting?  Who is trying to mitigate the damage? For the most part, it is those in childhood now who we need to equip for a future full of uncertainty, and I cannot stress enough the importance of education as an antidote to fear and irrationality in an increasingly uncertain world.

The kind of education I’m talking about isn’t the stuff of state schools. It is the stuff of the individual, of independent thought, of brave enquiry, of dignity and self-reinforcing respect, for others and for the self. It is the value of a non-material life, of spiritualism, of defining oneself through actions that are worthy, selfless, creative and generous. It is not the education of anxiety, of incomprehension, of blame and revenge, of ownership and complacency, cruelty and complaint.

This is my answer: teach your children well. The only way they can be happy is by adopting values that, in a world destabilised by climate change, can still be fulfilled. They must be unafraid of change, for it will be the only reliable metric by which they will measure their progress. They must be adaptable, competent, to trust in their ability to cope with anything climate change throws at them.

Teach them to look for value and reward within themselves, to find some better measure of their worth than what they own.  And teach them to be moral. Of all the values we have abandoned in exchange for iPads and Nikes, morality is the most important, the most valuable, and the most sorely missed. The people who could stop climate change, but will not, are gutless, amoral creatures who never bother to question whether the means can ever justify the ends; this is the spiritual effluent of consumerism, the corruption that devalues everyone by trying to attach a price to everything.

If we as a global society do not become moral, if we cannot bring ourselves to care enough to act, if we refuse to be responsible for the fate of us all, and for the shape and substance of our world, that shape will take on a very dark, malevolent form. This is not a prediction for the future: think PRISM, terrorists, fascism on the rise, a political class hopelessly lost for the want of a moral compass.

For future generations, the promise of limitless consumerism is one that will not be met; an education that makes such an empty promise is one bound only to induce disillusionment, cynicism and despair.  Don’t teach children why they should be martyrs, for what they will give up isn’t worth having, nor destroying the Earth to obtain. Teach them that frugality is a virtue, that economy is how we tell the difference between our needs and our desires.

The less we want, the more we appreciate what we have. Teach children not to be consumed with desires, while lamenting what they don’t have. Teach them not to ask what they can do for their country, but what they can do without.

Consumerism demands we be restless and unfulfilled for all our lives. It’s a shabby trick, and it’s time we countered this crude propaganda, because we keep falling for it over and over again.

You might also want to teach your kids a martial art. The future is going to get ugly.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2013 6:22 pm

    “You might also want to teach your kids a martial art. The future is going to get ugly.”

    Illegal in all countries where I know the answer – though some countries would allow you to legally build a semi automatic weapon for personal use. But what value should the shackles of legality have for the average citizen enslaved by the system and wishing to break free? It is the policeman planted in the mind that enforces the will of the socioeconomic elites upon the numerically superior masses.


  1. Education for Climate Change – now THAT’S what I call carbon literacy… | manchester climate monthly

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