Can we adapt to climate change?

A recent much publicised book, The Journey of Humanity by Oded Galor (The Bodley Head, 2022, to be reviewed here next month), which seeks to explain human development over the whole of history and the different pace of it in different places largely in terms of environmental conditions prevailing in the earliest times, sees more to be positive than negative about the effects of modern capitalism. It expresses hope that the global warming and climate crisis it has produced will be a ‘short-lived’ phenomenon resolvable via what the book calls ‘revolutionary technologies’. A similar hope is also the subject of an article entitled ‘Can Technology Help Us to Adapt to Climate Change?’ which appeared recently on the ‘We The People’ United Nations website.

The article first gives examples of how past societies managed to use existing technology to adapt to extreme climate conditions, for instance ancient Persian wind towers harnessing the breeze and directing it into homes to keep houses cool, or early farmers guiding and storing water to cope with dry periods. But while expressing optimism around the ingenuity of humans and our capacity to adapt, it then recognises that the extreme weather events happening because of increasing emissions and likely to continue are set to be far more devastating than anything that has happened before. It points to the fact that just last year ‘millions of people around the world were affected by deadly floods forcing them to leave their homes’. It expresses the hope that innovation in the shape of flood barriers, early warning systems and other ‘climate adaptation technologies’ can help to mitigate some of this, while at the same time recognising that such innovation is less likely to be accessible to the countries that need it most. It recommends the Green Technology Book, published digitally in 2022 by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, which displays over 200 adaptation technologies for agriculture and forestry, coastal areas and cities and which is, it says, ‘paving the way for increased efforts to turn climate policy into action’.

The article then goes into considerable detail about how some of these technologies are being developed, Examples are sea water being turned into drinking water by the use of solar power and so without the large amount of energy this process would normally require, typhoon-proof wind turbines as a way of combating extreme weather conditions, and climate-resistant rice that thrives in salty soils. But then, in a section entitled ‘Money makes adaptation go round’, it states: ‘Here is the rub… As always, funding remains a challenge … the diverse set of solutions that are needed do not come cheap. It has been estimated that up to US$340 billion is needed to cover global climate adaptation costs annually by 2030.’ The point is made here that, though the technology for this adaptation is globally available, the ‘poor’ countries will be unable to afford to develop it or to import it from other countries, nor will they be able to expect other countries to share it with them.

So though the section heading states ‘Money makes adaptation go round’, it is saying in effect just the opposite, ie, that climate adaptation will not happen for the millions perhaps billions of people in the countries which cannot pay for those technologies. The reason for this is that the world we live in is one where all goods and services, including technologies, have a price that builds in profit for those who have developed, manufactured and are marketing them. In other words, the grave potential threat to people in some of the countries most exposed to the effects of climate change will not be eliminated or mitigated, since it will not be profitable to do so. So, though the article does not say this explicitly, what it provides, for those reading between the lines, is a stark example of how the system we live under, capitalism, is driven to waging not just military wars but what has been called ‘a war of profit against life on earth’.

What solution then do ‘We The People’ propose to cope with ‘the challenges of biodiversity loss, land degradation and climate change’ on a worldwide basis? They propose that, apart from new technologies, ‘we must make fundamental changes to the way we live, work, produce, and consume’ in order to ‘address the root causes of climate vulnerability’. While it’s impossible to disagree with this in general, the specific recipe it advocates (‘a strong focus on reducing inequalities and promotion of social and economic justice’ and ‘the political drive and financing needed to implement and scale-up these solutions- at the right place and in the right way’) is not something that capitalism can serve up. While it may be true, as the article says, that ‘many of the solutions that can help us adapt to climate change are already available’, within the framework of a system that puts profit before every other priority, ‘climate action’ is unlikely to be quick or effective even if solutions ‘are already available’. Such solutions can in fact only see their full potential realised in a system that puts needs before profit, the system of production for use based on worldwide voluntary cooperation and free access to all goods and services that we call socialism.


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