• Jem Bendell, BA (Hons), PhD

A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy: Deep Adaptation - Part 1

Updated: Jan 5


A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy: Deep Adaptation - Part 1 Jem Bendell, BA (Hons), PhD

(From LEARNING FROM OUR MISTAKES, II , Issue #112 • MAY/SUMMER 2019 Subscribe) Can professionals in sustainability management, policy and research—myself included—continue to work with the assumption or hope that we can slow down climate change, or respond to it sufficiently to sustain our civilization?

As disturbing information on climate change passed across my screen, this was the question I could no longer ignore, and therefore decided to take a couple of months to analyze the latest climate science. As I began to conclude that we can no longer work with that assumption or hope, I asked a second question.

Have professionals in the sustainability field discussed the possibility that it is too late to avert an environmental catastrophe and the implications for their work?

A quick literature review revealed that my fellow professionals have not been publishing work that explores, or starts from, that perspective. That led to a third question, on why sustainability professionals are not exploring this fundamentally important issue to our whole field as well as to our personal lives?

To explore that, I drew on psychological analyses, conversations with colleagues, reviews of debates amongst environmentalists in social media and self-reflection on my own reticence. Concluding that there is a need to promote discussion about the implications of a social collapse triggered by an environmental catastrophe, I asked my fourth question on what are the ways that people are talking about collapse on social media?

I identified a variety of conceptualizations and from that asked myself what could provide a map for people to navigate this extremely difficult issue?

For that, I drew on a range of reading and experiences over my 25 years in the sustainability field to outline an agenda for what I have termed “deep adaptation” to climate change.

The result of these five questions is an article that does not contribute to one specific set of literature or practice in the broad field of sustainability management and policy. Rather, it questions the basis for all the work in this field.It does not seek to add to the existing research, policy, and practice on climate adaptation, as I found that to be framed by the view that we can manage the impacts of a changing climate on our physical, economic, social, political, and psychological situations. Instead, this article may contribute to future work on sustainable management and policy as much by subtraction as by addition. By that I mean the implication is for you to take a time to step back, to consider “what if ”the analysis in these pages is true, to allow yourself to grieve, and to overcome enough of the typical fears we all have, to find meaning in new ways of being and acting. That may be in the fields of academia or management—or could be in some other field that this realization leads you to.

First, I briefly explain the paucity of research that considers or starts from social collapse due to environmental catastrophe and give acknowledgement to the existing work in this field that many readers may consider relevant. Second, I summarize what I consider to be the most important climate science of the last few years and how it is leading more people to conclude that we face disruptive changes in the near-term. Third, I explain how that perspective is marginalized within the professional environmental sector—and so invite you to consider the value of leaving mainstream views behind. Fourth, I outline the ways that people on relevant social networks are framing our situation as one of facing collapse, catastrophe, or extinction and how these views trigger different emotions and ideas. Fifth, I outline a “Deep Adaptation Agenda” to help guide discussions on what we might do once we recognize climate change is an unfolding tragedy. Finally, I make some suggestions for how this agenda could influence our future research and teaching in the sustainability field.

As researchers and reflective practitioners, we have an opportunity and obligation to not just do what is expected by our employers and the norms of our profession, but also to reflect on the relevance of our work within wider society. I am aware that some people consider statements from academics that we now face inevitable near-term social collapse to be irresponsible due to the potential impact that may have on the motivation or mental health of people reading such statements. My research and engagement in dialogue on this topic, some of which I will outline in this paper, lead me to conclude the exact opposite. It is a responsible act to communicate this analysis now and invite people to support each other, myself included, in exploring the implications, including the psychological and spiritual implications.

Locating this study within academia

When discussing negative outlooks on climate change and its implications for human society, the response is often to seek insight through placing this information in context. That context is often assumed to be found in balancing it with other information. As the information on our climate predicament is so negative, the balance is often found in highlighting more positive information about progress on the sustainability agenda. This process of seeking to “balance out” is a habit of the informed and reasoning mind.

Yet that does not make it a logical means of deliberation if positive information being shared does not relate to the situation being described by the negative information. For instance, discussing progress in the health and safety policies of the White Star Line with the captain of the Titanic as it sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic would not be a sensible use of time. Yet given that this balancing is often the way people respond to discussion of the scale and speed of our climate tragedy, let us first recognize the positive news from the broader sustainability agenda.

Certainly, there has been some progress on environmental issues in past decades, from reducing pollution, to habitat preservation, to waste management. Much valiant effort has been made to reduce carbon emissions over the last 20 years,one part of climate action officially termed “mitigation”(Aaron-Morrison et al. 2017). There have been many steps forward on climate and carbon management from awareness,to policies, to innovations (Flannery, 2015). Larger and quicker steps must be taken. That is helped by the agreement reached in December 2015 at the COP21 intergovernmental climate summit and now that there is significant Chinese engagement on the issue. To support the maintenance and scaling of these efforts is essential. In addition, increasing action is occurring on adaptation to climate change, such as flood defenses, planning laws, and irrigation systems (Singh et al.2016). Whereas we can praise these efforts, their existence does not matter to an analysis of our overall predicament with climate change.

Rather than building from existing theories on sustainable business, this paper focuses on a phenomenon. That phenomenon is not climate change per se, but the state of climate change in 2018, which I will argue from a secondary review of research now indicates near-term social collapse. The gap in the literature that this paper may begin to address is the lack of discussion within management studies and practice of the end of the idea that we can either solve or cope with climate change. In the Sustainability Accounting Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ), to which this paper was originally submitted, there has been no prior discussion of this topic, apart from my own co-authored paper (Bendell et al.2017). Three papers mention climate adaptation in passing,with just one focusing on it by considering how to improve irrigated agriculture (de Sousa Fragoso et al. 2018) (1).

Organization and Environment is a leading journal for discussion of the implications of climate for organizations and vice versa, where since the 80s both philosophical and theoretical positions on environment are discussed as well as organizational or management implications. However, the journal has not published any research papers exploring theories and implications of social collapse due to environmental catastrophe (2). Three articles mention climate adaptation. Two of those have adaptation as a context, but explore other issues as their main focus, specifically social learning (Orsatoet al. 2018) and network learning (Temby et al. 2016). Only one paper in that journal looks at climate adaptation as its main focus and the implications for organization. While a helpful summary of how difficult the implications are for management, the paper does not explore the implications of a widespread social collapse (Clément & Rivera, 2016).

Away from management studies, the field of climate adaptation is wide (Lesnikowski et al. 2015). To illustrate, a search on Google Scholar returns over 40,000 hits for the term “climate adaptation.” In answering the questions I set for myself in this paper, I will not be reviewing that existing field and scholarship. One might ask “why not?”

The answer is that the field of climate adaptation is oriented around ways to maintain our current societies as they face manageable climactic perturbations (ibid). The concept of “deep adaptation” resonates with that agenda where we accept that we will need to change, but breaks with it by taking as its starting point the inevitability of societal collapse (as I will explain below).

Our non-linear world

This paper is not the venue for a detailed examination of all the latest climate science. However, I reviewed the scientific literature from the past few years and where there was still large uncertainty, then sought the latest data from research institutes. In this section, I summarize the findings to establish the premise that it is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today.

The simple evidence of global ambient temperature rise is indisputable.

Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, and global temperatures have increased by 0.9°C since 1880 (NASA/GISS, 2018). The most surprising warming is in the Arctic, where the 2016 land surface temperature was 2.0°C above the 1981-2010 average, breaking the previous records of 2007, 2011, and 2015 by 0.8°C, representing a 3.5°C increase since the record began in 1900 (Aaron-Morrison et. al. 2017).

These data are fairly easy to collate and not widely challenged, so swiftly find their way into academic publications. However, to obtain a sense of the implications of this warming on environment and society, one needs real-time data on the current situation and the trends that it may imply. Climate change and its associated impacts have, as we will see, been significant in the last few years. Therefore,to appreciate the situation, we need to look directly to the research institutes, researchers, and their websites, for the most recent information. That means using, but not relying solely on, academic journal articles and the slowly produced reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC). This international institution has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change, which has been more accurately predicted over past decades by eminent climate scientists. Therefore, in this review, I will draw upon a range of sources, with a focus on data since 2014. That is because, unfortunately, data collected since then is often consistent with non-linear changes to our environment. Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections and that the changes no longer correlate with the rate of anthropogenic carbon emissions. In other words—‘runaway climate change.’ The warming of the Arctic reached wider public awareness as it has begun destabilizing winds in the higher atmosphere, specifically the jet stream and the northern polar vortex, leading to extreme movements of warmer air north into the Arctic and cold air to the south. At one point in early 2018,temperature recordings from the Arctic were 20°C above the average for that date (Watts, 2018). The warming Arctic has led to dramatic loss in sea ice, the average September extent of which has been decreasing at a rate of 13.2% per decade since 1980, so that over two-thirds of the ice cover has gone(NSIDC/NASA, 2018). These data are made more concerning by changes in sea ice volume, which is an indicator of resilience of the ice sheet to future warming and storms. It was at the lowest it has ever been in 2017, continuing a consistent downward trend (Kahn, 2017).

Given a reduction in the reflection of the Sun’s rays from the surface of white ice, an ice-free Arctic is predicted to increase warming globally by a substantial degree. Writing in 2014, scientists calculated this change is already equivalent to 25% of the direct forcing of temperature increase from CO2 during the past 30 years (Pistone et al. 2014). That means we could remove a quarter of the cumulative CO2 emissions of the last three decades, and it would already be outweighed by the loss of the reflective power of Arctic sea ice. One of the most eminent climate scientists in the world, Peter Wadhams, believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and that it will likely increase by 50%the warming caused by the CO2 produced by human activity(Wadhams, 2016) (4). In itself, that renders the calculations of the IPCC redundant, along with the targets and proposals of the UNFCCC.

Between 2002 and 2016, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, and the island’s lower elevations and coastal areas experienced up to 13.1 feet (4 meters) of ice mass loss (expressed in equivalent-water-height) overa 14-year period (NASA, 2018). Along with other melting of land ice, and the thermal expansion of water, this has contributed to a global mean sea level rise of about 3.2 mm/year, representing a total increase of over 80 mm since 1993 (JPL/PO.DAAC, 2018). Stating a figure per year implies a linear increase, which is what has been assumed by IPCC and others in making their predictions. However, recent data show that the upward trend is nonlinear (Malmquist, 2018). That means sea level is rising due to nonlinear increases in the melting of land-based ice.

The observed phenomena, of actual temperatures and sea levels, are greater than what the climate models over the past decades were predicting for our current time. They are consistent with nonlinear changes in our environment that then trigger uncontrollable impacts on human habitat and agriculture, with subsequent complex impacts on social, economic,and political systems. I will return to the implications of these trends after listing some more of the impacts that are already being reported as occurring today.

Already we see impacts on storm, drought, and flood frequency and strength due to increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere (Herring et al. 2018). We are witnessing negative impacts on agriculture. Climate change has reduced growth in crop yields by 1-2% per decade over the past century (Wiebe et al. 2015).

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that weather abnormalities related to climate change are costing billions of dollars a year and growing exponentially.

Now, the impact is calculated in money, but the nutritional implications are key (FAO, 2018). We are also seeing impacts on marine ecosystems. About half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, due to a mixture of reasons though higher water temperatures and acidification due to higher CO2 concentrations in ocean water being key (Phys.org, 2018). In ten years prior to 2016, the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50% more CO2 than it did the previous decade, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean (Woosley et al. 2016). This study is indicative of oceans worldwide, and the consequent acidification degrades the base of the marine food web, thereby reducing the ability of fish populations to reproduce themselves across the globe (Britten et al. 2015). Meanwhile, warming oceans are already reducing the population size of some fish species (Aaron-Morrison et al. 2017). Compounding these threats to human nutrition, in some regions we are witnessing an exponential rise in the spread of mosquito and tick-borne viruses as temperatures become more conducive to them (ECJCR, 2018).

Looking ahead to the impacts

The impacts I just summarized are already upon us, and even without increasing their severity, they will nevertheless increase their impacts on our ecosystems, soils, seas, and our societies over time. It is difficult to predict future impacts. But it is more difficult not to predict them. Because the reported impacts today are at the very worst end of predictions being made in the early 90s—back when I first studied climate change and model-based climate predictions as an undergraduate at Cambridge University.

The models today suggest an increase in storm number and strength (Herring et al. 2018). They predict a decline of normal agriculture, including the compromising of mass production of grains in the northern hemisphere and intermittent disruption to rice production in the tropics. That includes predicted declines in the yields of rice, wheat, and corn in China by