Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Surviving Climate Chaos: Systems adapting to change

Julian Caldecott

Surviving Climate Chaos is being published into a new world of lethal fires, floods and record-breaking temperatures, while the IPCC warns us that we are in the last decade before Arctic, oceanic and equatorial tipping points take all choices out of human hands. This emergency calls for far greater focus and impact in our climate change response, and for the strengthening of communities and ecosystems everywhere against climate chaos. It also calls for greater clarity in how we think about the social and ecological systems in which we live, the stresses that they experience, and how we and they adapt to new and dangerous circumstances.

Systems can adapt to new circumstances by changing their entities and relationships. This may be forced by changes to the nature, intensity or direction of pressures on the system, or the deletion of elements within the system. These pressures and deletions mean different things in social and ecological systems, but parallels are easy to draw.
In human social systems, pressures might come from the arrival of powerful outsiders bearing new concepts of value, virtue, law and ownership, and deletions might mean the deaths of individuals and the forgetting of cultural elements such as words, stories and skills.
In ecological systems, pressures might involve rising or falling water tables or changes in seasonal mean temperature and rainfall, while deletions could mean the hunting or felling of unusual numbers of particular kinds of organism or the extinctions of species.

A system adapts to such events by changing itself to fit, mainly by filling in gaps with new ideas, organisms or species from the stock (often the ‘weed stock’) available in the surrounding world. And when we set out to adapt to climate change we find ourselves mimicking natural processes, for example in the following ways.
Adapting to climate change requires the replacement of weaker system elements, like vulnerable crops and damaged catchments, by stronger new or resurrected old ones, by more resilient crops, traditional low-impact farming systems, and planning arrangements that favour the protection or restoration of coastal, wetland and catchment ecosystems.
Mitigating climate change requires the replacement of high-emitting system elements, such as fossil-fuel power and transport and the mining of forestry and land resources, by renewable energy, circular economies, forest protection, sustainable harvesting and organic farming.

Changes like this can be designed, planned and put into effect, and their results are detectable and offer meaningful indicators of progress in the direction of mitigation and adaptation. But all established ways of doing things in human societies are sustained and protected by policies, traditions and institutions, and these often resist innovation so they also have to be changed. Rapid and deep environmental change calls for quick and profound alteration, and the faster and deeper the changes that are needed, the harder conservative forces will fight them. So adaptation is always both a technical process of rational investment and a political process of education and contest. And tension between these processes can become heated in an emergency, as when climate protestors are willing to face arrest or violence in occupying buildings and blocking roads.

Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott
Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott

Title: Surviving Climate Chaos by Strengthening Communities and Ecosystems

Author: Julian Caldecott

Paperback ISBN: 9781108793780

Hardback ISBN: 9781108840125

About The Author

Julian Caldecott

Julian Caldecott is Director of Creatura Ltd, an environmental consultancy, and has a background in wildlife research and conservation in tropical rainforests. Since 2000 he has le...

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