Is building resilience to climate change so desirable?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 July 2015 07:05 GMT

An abandoned house that is affected by seawater during high-tides stands next to a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, May 25, 2013. REUTERS/David Gray

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Instead we should be trying harder to resist it, scientists argue

Building resilience to the worsening impacts of climate change is the main aim of millions of dollars in development spending these days. But is it the wrong goal?

Luis Fernandez Carril, a climate change scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, thinks pushing too hard to improve resilience to climate change is, in effect, giving up the fight to actually stop it.

“We see resilience as something desirable, something we strive for. But we need to remember that we want to avoid this, actually,” he told scientists and researchers to enthusiastic applause at a climate science conference in Paris this week.

Making plans to adapt to already locked-in climate change is, of course, crucial to saving lives as people face more severe weather, rising seas and threats to food and water security.

But have we shifted too far from trying to avoid dangerous climate change to simply making plans to deal with what we increasingly see as inevitable?

“People need to become resilient. But it’s not what we desire. What we desire is governments of the world do something about this - and soon,” he said. “If we allow resilience to become the paradigm…we’re welcoming the new normal.”


The problem, he and others said in Paris, is that there is a limit to how much we can adapt.

When temperatures hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Pakistani city of Karachi last month, more than 1,000 people died. So far global temperatures have risen about 0.8 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

So what will happen when temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius – the ceiling climate negotiators hope to achieve but governments are so far failing to – or the 4 degrees currently expected by the end of the century?

Small islands around the world, for example, are severely constrained in their ability to adapt. A world temperature rise of below 1 degree Celsius already has brought worsening sea surges, stronger typhoons and saltwater seeping into drinking water supplies.

Ricarda Winkelmann, who looks at potential climate “tipping points” for the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, sea level rise around the world could be 7 metres (21 feet) – enough to drown many small islands.

What would it take for that to happen? The threshold for irreversible melting to start is estimated at between 0.8 and 3.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Winkelmann said.

In small island states, building resilience to climate change is meaningless in the face of high and still-rising emissions, Fernandez said. That makes them right to insist that “we refuse the new normal”, he said.

“We don’t want a resilient global future,” he said. “What we want is to avoid it… We don’t want resilience. We want resistance.”

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