As we enter an era of environmental atonement, we must increasingly focus on adaptation and building resilient infrastructure, says climate expert David Viner.
Extreme weather events are becoming routine. Europe sustained an unprecedented heat wave in 2010; Pakistan was deluged by floods the same year; Australia endured an ‘Angry Summer’ of extreme weather in 2012/13; and the US contended with Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and a polar vortex in 2014.
Climate change is still taking humanity by surprise, causing destruction and death. Can we really be entering an Age of Catastrophe, powerless in the face of climate disaster? Or is there still an opportunity to steer the course of history onto a different path, and develop a more sustainable future?
The answer lies in our goals for that sustainable future. Time may be running out to remodel a low carbon world and prevent further irreversible change. Vigorously pursuing a resilience approach may now be society’s best chance at an optimistic future.
Motivating political action and unlocking funding are the keys to successful action, and it is here that progress has faltered so far. Momentum in the late 1990s and early 2000s did lead to accomplishments – such as the 1997 Kyoto Treaty and the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act – designed to advance the perceived ‘ultimate goal’ of a low carbon society. But the 2009 UNFCC Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Copenhagen marked a turning point.
Lofty ambitions for the signing of a Kyoto Treaty successor proved misplaced, and the COP was widely regarded as a monumental failure. The positive intentions of individuals and countries were undermined by the weaknesses of the collective whole.
Indecisive governments were unconvinced by confusing narratives from civil society organisations, and poor event management and a Danish winter both contributed to the lack of a significant outcome. Increasingly, the climate change movement has suffered from a lack of coherence and leadership. Non-governmental organisations have competed with each other instead of cooperating. The climate change agenda has been eclipsed by the struggle to recover from the global economic downturn.
Tens of natural disasters, thousands of human lives lost and billions of pounds worth of destruction later, little further progress has been made. On one hand, over a century of evolving scientific and public attitudes have placed us on an active, optimistic path; on the other, the indecision and incoherence of recent years have effectively brought the movement to a halt.
But the ‘doomsday scenario’ of increasingly frequent and unpredictable natural disasters is no longer on the far horizon. When we talk about catastrophe we mean the recent past, the present, the next few years.
It is time to recognise that the delays of recent years may have caused humanity to miss our chance to prevent drastic climate change. Low carbon solutions still have value, but we need to concentrate our efforts on adapting to the inevitable. The design of buildings, infrastructure and communities must allow life to be preserved and protected when climate change takes hold, with no lasting damage borne when extreme events happen.
Interest in this approach is growing. The climate change movement, governments and clients alike are increasingly viewing adaptation as a core theme, and resilience is coming to the fore of climate change discussions and projects.
With this redirected momentum, we can leverage the international enthusiasm and diplomatic mechanisms required to ensure that the coming era is not the Age of Catastrophe but the Age of Resilience. Future generations are depending on us.