Coping With Climate Change: Which Societies Will Do Best?

As the world warms, how different societies fare in dealing with rising seas and changing weather patterns will have as much to do with political, social, and economic factors as with a changing climate.

Following the disastrous tsunami of December 2004, the government of Bangladesh embraced upgraded storm-alert systems that warn communities in a coordinated way and improved social support networks, resulting in a drastic reduction in typhoon deaths. In neighboring Myanmar, by contrast, deaths from natural disasters have risen in recent years. Indeed, the deaths that occurred there last year in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis cannot be separated from the fact that Myanmar has an authoritarian regime that prevents international assistance from reaching those in need, rendering its citizens unable to cope with extreme weather disasters — events that are expected to become more frequent with climate change.

The stark contrast between Bangladesh and Myanmar, both likely facing serious threats from rising sea levels and more intense typhoons as the world warms, is a striking example of a key measure of how different parts of the world are going to cope with climate change in the coming century: whether societies are “climate-fit” or “climate-weak.” In fact, how different societies fare as temperatures rise will have as much to do with political, social, technological, and economic factors as with a changing climate.

That global warming will exact a human toll is undisputed, but the extent of its predicted impacts is uncertain. So how can we best identify those most at risk? Applying Darwinian principles, climate change, like any other assault on our species, is about survival of the fittest. We need to recognize what makes a community “climate-fit,” and how to improve fitness in “climate-weak” populations.

“If people feel they have control over their situation, they begin to work out solutions.”

Geography is important, of course — climate-fit people live in areas less vulnerable to sea level rise, for example. But it is only one factor, and thestrength of a society — its resilience, ingenuity, and flexibility, as well as its governance — will have a great deal to do with how it fares in the face of climate change. People who live in countries that are well-governed, and who belong to communities that are more self-reliant and exist within the sustainable limits of the available resources, are plainly going to be better able to weather the impacts of climate change.

In Gujarat, India, for example, I have visited drought-stricken villages, separated by less than 1 kilometer, whose approach to severe water shortages made the difference between abundance and dependence. In one village, residents have collected and stored monsoon rains for the dry season, built barriers to slow monsoon rains so they penetrate the water table and wells, and created an effective irrigation system. They harvest three bountiful crops per year. The neighboring village has not taken such steps, and it manages just one poor harvest and is reliant on government water tankers to provide drinking water for seven months of the year.

I have seen neighboring islands in the Maldives, where on one, houses have been abandoned and even washed away because of erosion exacerbated by sea-level rise, while on the other, coral and mangrove conservation have kept all the homes secure.

Where people take responsibility for their destiny, they are far more likely to employ sound practices, like traditional water management strategies. “If people feel they have control over their situation, they begin to work out practical solutions to the problem,” says Tom Crompton, of WWF, who studies the psychology of climate change. “But, as studies in Norway during glacier melt have shown, when people feel they are impotent to do anything, they employ emotional management strategies like denial, which help no one.”

Flexibility is also an important measure of climate fitness, whether it is the emotional flexibility that prepares people to make long migrations from their soon-to-be-flooded homes in the Bay of Bengal, or the flexibility that allows a Bangladeshi rice farmer to convert to shrimp farming to deal with increased salinity from rising seas.

Populations that are ‘climate-fit’ can become ‘climate-weak’ because of poor government.

Effective governance is obviously crucial to a society’s climate fitness. Thisincludes removing the barriers that prevent people and communities from improving their lives, as well as inequalities of caste, ethnicity, religion, or tribes. The chaos of war, violence, or the complete breakdown of government — as seen in Nepal, Afghanistan, or the resource-rich Indian state of Bihar — can leave populations climate-weakened.

Populations that also are reasonably climate-fit can become climate-weak because of the poor decisions of their governments. A case in point is Laos. Climate models for the region predict a greater variability in the monsoon patterns over the coming decades in this Southeast Asian nation, which is ranked as one of the world’s least developed countries. In May, the United Nations set up a special task force to look at climate adaptation in Laos, aimed at readying the population for drought and flooding scenarios.

By any measure, villagers I met in my recent journey across Laos were poor and backward. Despite that, however, the Laotian people’s degree of self-sufficiency is so high that — for now — they are among the most climate-fit societies in the world.

Roughly 80 percent of the Laotian people are subsistence farmers and fishermen, supplementing their cultivated harvest from the natural resources that remain extraordinarily abundant in this sliver of land between Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Cambodia. Villagers collect everything from construction materials to food, including insects, herbs, fruit, nuts, and mushrooms from the forests. The Mekong and its many tributaries provide the fish that make up 80 percent of the dietary protein of the 6.3 million Lao, as well as water and a social meeting place for these strong, supportive communities.

If the people were to continue living as they currently do, then Laotians would be in a good position to cope with the impacts of climate change. But the climate fitness of the Laotian people is being threatened by their own government, which is busy selling off the country’s resources, including timber concessions and a planned series of large hydropower dams that threaten fish populations and the ability of Laotians to feed themselves, and thereby raise their vulnerability to climate change.

Good governance is not necessarily a characteristic of a Western model. “Vietnam used to have a very robust method of dealing with typhoons and hurricanes, but this all fell apart when they embraced capitalism,” says Saleem Huq, director of the climate change program at the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Generally, though, democratic countries are more robust because there is a means of challenging the powers and holding them to account. You don’t get famines in a democracy.”

The global community has a duty to confront the uncomfortable socio-political aspect of climate vulnerability.

Going hand-in-hand with good leadership is smart development policy. Indian states such as Gujarat, which are starting to wean farmers off unsustainable agriculture and into new industries, are improving thepeople’s climate fitness, as are policies in Kothapally in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where scientists are helping villagers to grow semi-arid crops, such as millet, in place of rice. Poor development policy, however well intended, can also weaken climate fitness. This includes government subsidies for unsustainable agriculture that promote thirsty crops, such as rice, or provide unrealistically cheap electricity for groundwater pumps.

Sound environmental guardianship is perhaps one of the most important traits of governments and societies that hope to improve their ability to deal with climate change. Countries such as Costa Rica, where the environment is preserved as an important part of the tourism economy, are more climate-fit than places like Indonesia, China or Madagascar, where the government allows or sponsors environmental degradation, such as widespread deforestation.

Another key component of climate fitness is the equality and empowerment of women and minority groups. Natalie Curtis, a senior press spokesman at Oxfam, said that sea level rise and an increase in extreme weather events in Bangladesh has been a “double-edged sword.” The impacts have been “horrific”, she said, but they have led to the creation of councils of women in every village “who are leading the efforts for community survival.”

Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans was also a stark example of climate weakness, as social inequality — and poor governance — led to tens of thousands of the city’s poorest residents being stranded for days.

As the atmosphere and oceans warm this century — leading, in all likelihood, to an increase in extreme weather events, sea level rise, drought, and greater political conflict — suffering and climate-related deaths need not be a fait accompli. The global community has a duty to confront the uncomfortable socio-political aspect of climate vulnerability in order to help climate-weak people tool up to climate fitness. And, importantly, to prevent climate-fit people, like the villagers in Laos, from becoming climate-weak. But it will require strong local action, good governance, and well-planned climate adaptation programs in the poor countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the climate-weak live — and the most deaths are likely to occur.