Surviving climate change

The failure of Copenhagen and other climate change setbacks raise the real possibility that the world will continue to obsess over trivialities, missing the big picture until it is too late to prevent radical change. As such, we need to at least contemplate the possibility of seeing more than 4˚C of mean global temperature rise within our lifetimes, with all the radical effects that might accompany that.

As individuals, what kind of strategies could permit that? Warming is likely to be far more pronounced in the higher latitudes than in more temperate ones. Sea levels are likely to rise significantly, while summer snowpack and glaciers are likely to vanish. Crops that have been well suited to regions for all of human history may no longer grow where they used to. How can someone with no intention of having children maximize their odds of living decently in a world we are so actively undermining? What should those who have reproduced (or are considering doing so) take into consideration, above and beyond that?

For the sake of this planning exercise, it is worth considering outcomes that are plausible and serious, even if they are more unlikely than likely. After all, there are a lot of powerful feedback mechanisms that haven’t yet been incorporated into climate models. It is also worth remembering that even business-as-usual projections, based on emissions continuing to grow at the present rate, involve projected warming of over 5˚C by the end of the century, making the planet far hotter than at any time in human history.

Note that this has been partly discussed here before.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Surviving climate change”

  1. Much too soon to say. Regional downscaling of climate models is not yet terribly advanced, and we have no way of knowing what emissions trajectory the world will end up following.

    One obvious strategy is to maintain flexibility.

  2. I think a good strategy for personal survival in a world where economic structures are breaking down is to make sure you have as many non-economic relations with others as possible. I.e., don’t only be able to have your bike fixed because you can pay someone, but rather because you can do it yourself, or because you have friends that will want to skill-share with you. And/or, of course, have children.

  3. Where Is the Hope after Copenhagen?

    This letter was born in Copenhagen where, heartbroken, I watched the international climate talks fall apart.

    Heartbroken because it was clear to me, as it was to many of you, that the talks in Copenhagen needed to succeed, that it is no longer safe for us to go on as we have before.

    I believe this is a unique time in humanity’s fretful reign on Earth, a rare moment that will have historic significance.

    And yet the Copenhagen talks failed. We have no plan to reduce deadly emissions of carbon dioxide. Emissions that are a symptom of our broken relationship with the web of life. Emissions that are rising faster than at any time in human history.

    We also have no legally binding agreement. Instead we have feeble words cloaked in mistrust, the phantom of a deal.

    Our moment of opportunity came and then went, and here we are now, the fate of civilization and of millions of the planet’s life forms hanging by the frayed thread of inaction.

  4. The oil industry is an incredibly powerful force. As long as they keep telling us everything is going to be okay, people will be willing to believe it. Politians strive for makes them popular now — not what is best long-term. It’s all very sad that nothing concrete is going to be done until we have no other choice.

  5. Buy land off the beaten path, with easy access to fresh water and learn to become a whole lot more self-reliant.

    I think learning some basic agricultural skills like saving seed and what and how to plant and grow vegetables organically for your particular locale is a good place to start. Perhaps some basic outdoor skills like shelter making, foraging, hunting, etc…

    The funny thing is, even with a worse case scenario, sea-level rises, etc. Its not the industrialized world (at least here in NA) that will suffer the most I think. Certain population shifts will occur, but on the whole we’ve got plenty of space here in North America. Some other areas of the world where population density is insane will be a whole lot worse off, yet being an entire ocean away we don’t really have to worry here.

    Not to mention being much warmer some areas that are now only marginally inhabitable will become a whole lot more habitable.

  6. We need to work on starting political movements to allow relocation to happen before danger is immanent. Otherwise, huge effective slave classes could be created.

  7. A lot of survival skills depend on locale – the materials you use, what to look for finding water, etc are partly governed by local geology but still more by what plants will grow. For regions where change substantially alters local parameters for flora and fauna, survival skills based on current conditions may be of little use.

    Taking Tristan’s example of bike fixing – if trade disruption or climate change mitigation action (or import restrictions) mean that rubber tyres and rubberised parts for bikes are no longer available in the region, the requirements of bike-fixing change from ‘how do I reassemble this having obtained the parts’ to ‘how do I construct the substitute parts from substitute materials so as to recreate the qualities of a serviceable bike’.

    Self-sufficiency through agriculture requires awareness of local climate, but on an individual scale, access to land, so staying around city centers and especially in blocks of flats is probably a very bad idea. While allotments are possible, security of that land (so of that crop or livestock) is vital – common fields and common land protect the individual in circumstances – and if you’re not near enough to keep an eye on things you’ll have to hope someone you can trust is. You also need access to a lot of seed varieties, and non-sterile plants, to switch to in accordance with increasing environmental stresses.

    Self-sufficiency through foraging (such the guy who lived money-less for a year recently) works if there is little pressure on the foraging – his experiment wouldn’t have worked if a larger group had tried it.

    We have no idea of what local scarcities or challenges we will need to face up to. But I’ll laugh very sickly if backwoods survivalist communities prove best prepared.

    Fast unpredictable change generates catastrophies for humans because, although we are very adaptable to conditions, we have to know about the conditions we are adapting ourselves to. Not all shipwreck victims are Robinson Crusoes.

    We can hope that the direction of change manifests itself quickly and the interplay of systems allows it to stay consistent. And that the rate of change is not faster than our individual or collective adaptability can accommodate.

    Hang out with farmers, naturalists, and those who know nature (country people don’t always). Live near the countryside or large parks (well away from current or former industrial sites), near good roads, so you have access to transported goods, and near a library, so you can access book-learning quickly but don’t lose time for hands-on skills (consistent power for internet etc may not be depended upon). Learn about generators, learn engineering crafts and get tools – preferably not all power tools.

    Even in affluent societies, many layers will be at risk. Where survival is unthreatened, severe culture shock seems a risk.

    Hmm. Basically study and apply geography (human and otherwise), engineering and agriculture, including herbalism. Medical know-how wouldn’t hurt, but using amateur smatterings might.

    On the other hand, erratic generalist know-how will probably be less valued by others than hard-won long experience in a specialist field, so become a medic and the community will try to support you.

    On a more (personally) optimistic note, at least many environments support sheep, though perhaps not the breeds in the UK at the moment. Given the number of my friends who spin and knit, I can hope to face the future clothed at least.

  8. hard-won long experience in a specialist field, so become a medic or an engineer and generator maintainer, or any other specialist practical expertise that many will depend on having access to. How freely you’ll live might vary, but you’re likelier to live and to contribute to others survival.

    There is a lot of sci-fi examining survival in new and uncertain conditions, collectively examining the various issues, socio-political and practical, have fed parts of the genre for decades.

    For some reason while writing this I kept seeing Asimov’s enclosed cities with agricultural labour shift systems (more precisely, a visual image of a farming group leaving the dome to work the fields, possibly from the first of the Elijah Bailey books.

  9. Antonia’s suggestion of practical skills is a good one. As preparation for a worst-case scenario, know how to do something that would be of value in a pre-industrial community.

    Something like paramedic-level medical training might be suitable.

  10. A hybrid strategy makes sense to me:

    1) Develop a set of skills that allow you to do at least moderately well in society as it exists now. In the absence of radical change, it will be the people higher up on the social order who face the least disruption and have the most options for responding to direct climate impacts and the secondary economic, social, and political effects they induce.

    2) At the same time, develop and maintain skills that would be valuable in virtually any human society. Practical knowledge of things like construction and medicine would fall into this category.

    To me, such an approach seems like a decent way of balancing different risks, and avoiding the huge sunk costs associated with devoting your whole life to dealing with a worst-case possibility.

    Remember, there are much longer lags in the climate system than in human planning. While the effects of today’s emissions won’t be fully felt for 40 years or more, your average human life can be effectively transformed on a much shorter timescale. If things really are going to fall apart because of climate change, it seems probable that we will have years or decades of warning.

  11. Another strategy is to buy quality things that could last a lifetime, the sort that can be repaired if they break.

  12. I certainly agree with that suggestion.

    It has long been my personal philosophy that, when it comes to things you will use for decades, you might as well invest in high quality equipment which can be repaired and for which spare parts will be available.

    It is costly at the outset, but saves you from having to re-buy things. You also get the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from working with quality equipment: whether that is a photographic lens, a pen, kitchen knives, etc.

  13. “Once ice sheets begin to collapse, sea level can rise dramatically. For example, about 14,000 years ago, as Earth emerged from the last ice age and became warmer, sea level rose at an average rate of 1 meter every 20 or 25 years, a rate that continued for several centuries. The danger today is that we may allow ocean warming and “softening up” of ice sheets to reach a point such that the dynamical process of collapse takes over. And then it would be too late – we cannot tie a rope or build a wall around a mile-thick ice sheet.”

    Hansen, James. Storms of My Grandchildren. p.71 (hardcover)

    Hansen has consistently been ahead of the curve with his climate change predictions. Sea level rise at that sort of rate would have a massive effect on the world: drowning cities, ruining farmland, and changing the shape of coastlines everywhere.

  14. What great blogging subject. Thanks for this, because it respects the problem and moves forward.

    Restated it becomes something like “How do we live for today, knowing that the future will be so radically different than we expected?”

    I think the biggest risk is the loss of civilization… in the sense of both civility and government. .. It might be most important to nurture and build a smart, capable government, whether local or federal. do otherwise opens up the world to war lord-ism and the corporate states. The difficulty will be in keeping government out of the direct control of corporations – in the US we may have just lost that battle. But state and local governments might be worthy investment.

    Work to preserve civility.

  15. I have written before about cooperation tipping points.

    It seems plausible that, once things got bad enough, it would be impossible to get various states to cooperate on climate change mitigation. Combine that with the danger of amplifying positive feedbacks, and the prospect of extinction begins to look possible.

  16. FEBRUARY 7, 2010…11:45 PM
    Surviving the Next 50+/- Years

    The dazzling Misssy M seems to inspire a lot of blog posts for me. I don’t know why that should be so – I’ve never inspired any for her. But anyway, last week she posted a panicky little treatise on being forty and all the ways she reckons she should be different at such an advanced age.

    The thing that particularly sparked my interest and concern, was her worry that neither she, nor her husband had much of a pension. How you’re going to survive in your old age is something that most young people don’t seem to give much thought to. It’s not until you start heading into your 40s that you suddenly begin to realize that you might just live another 40 years. Then you realize that you won’t want to keep working for another 40 years even if you could. Then you realize that if you’re not working you won’t have any money and that without money you won’t be able to do stuff like eat, pay your mortgage or sail around the world.

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