How Do You Legislate Flexibility? How Do You Manufacture Uniqueness?

The species which survives is that which is most adaptable to change. The most recent IPCC report underlines the fact that when it comes to humanity’s future, flexibility is the key. There need to be multiple approaches to the problems of feeding ourselves, teaching ourselves, rebuilding our infrastructure, and acting to heal the wounds we have inflicted on the planet’s ecosystems.

As the various climate models that underpin the report are improved, they are not converging on agreed forecasts but are disagreeing more and finding new unpredictabilities, particularly in Asia and Africa. One draft says simply: “The impact of climate change on water availability in Africa is uncertain.” For Asia it is similarly vague: “There is low confidence in future precipitation projections.” In part, this may be down to the IPCC getting its fingers burned in 2010, after it made the erroneous claim that the Himalayas would be ice-free by 2035, dubbed “glaciergate”. But mostly, the caution is justified: scientists just don’t know.

In the absence of specifics, how should countries prepare for climate change? We can no longer expect to get detailed forecasts that allow us to fine-tune our responses – building bigger dams, say, or investing in air conditioning. Instead, we have to think more about reducing our vulnerability to whatever climate change may throw at us, for example by breeding crops that can handle both droughts and floods, or building flood defences to cope with anything.

This is difficult for both governments and businesses to grasp. Governments are in the business of making policy — which is (by definition) the imposition of behavioral constraints on large groups of people. That’s how we get “one-size-fits-all” approaches on everything from prison sentences to education to economics. Businesses aren’t policy-oriented, but they are driven by market forces and are thus compelled to exploit economies of scale, which means mass production in everything from toys to cars to agriculture to houses.

Neither of these approaches are going to be viable in a climatically-transformed world.

Mortality will increase; resource availability will decrease. Our species has blossomed into civilization thanks to a generally benign climate — and civilization’s greatest strength is its ability to provide consistency across generations. The idea that both our social institutions and our infrastructure will outlive us is absurdly young in large-scale thinking — only a few thousand years old at most.

The question facing humanity is how to carry the strengths of a civil society into a future where the climate is no longer kind to us.

How can we make effective policies when the circumstances in which they are implemented change faster than the electoral cycles of our politics? How can a consumer economy possibly survive when “economies of scale” are suddenly costlier and more fallible than home-made responses to what are essentially a relentless series of emergencies?

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