Climate adaptation: more sea walls will not be enough

The climate crisis is leading to massive social rifts. Politics-as-usual will tend to accentuate the problem rather than solve it – and effective adaptation calls for radical transformations that push beyond the existing system. By Ulrich Brand, Barbara Fried, Rhonda Koch, Hannah Schurian, and Markus Wissen

Imagine a summer heatwave in Berlin in 2050. For weeks on end, the temperature fails to dip below 20 degrees, even at night. The heat builds up in poorly renovated, heavily populated residential areas—while neighbourhoods with green areas and private gardens are up to ten degrees cooler.

This is a just a single glimpse of the kinds of inequality produced in a world shaped by climate change—and it is far from the most distressing one. By mid-century, far more serious environmental crises will interfere with living conditions in many regions of the world, or even render them unbearable.

A man walks along the giant sea wall being built along the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, much of which is sinking below sea level. Photo by Irene Barlian / Climate Visuals Countdown : Creative Commons

Yet, even in Germany, heatwaves will claim lives. Preparing for the coming increases in extreme weather and environmental crises demands massive action—however, this need continues to be ignored. Even a rich country like Germany is failing to take the measures that are necessary to adapt.

The price is being paid primarily by those who have access to the fewest resources and bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis.

Climate adaptation is a social question, conceivably the social question of the coming age. But even on the left it is often pushed aside.

To speak of adaptation suggests a posture of defence and resignation, and fails to inspire assent. And anyway, wouldn’t we be better off directing all of our efforts toward mitigating climate change than already starting to reconcile ourselves to the consequences?

The opposite is true. If we take climate prognoses seriously and consider what, concretely, a two-degree rise in average global temperatures will mean, we will see all the more clearly that a radical fight against climate change is urgently necessary in order to prevent an even worse fate.

Confronting what awaits us and searching for collective answers might help us overcome the wilful ignorance, anxiety, and resignation that are so widespread.

But what needs to be done?

Real adaptation will require radical change

In the Global South, loss and damage caused by climate change are already palpable. Massive adaptive measures are needed. Movements for climate justice are demanding reparations for the “climate debt” owed by the rich countries of the Global North, whose model of production and way of life have been responsible for the bulk of global emissions.

But the industrialised countries of the West avoid this discussion. In the place of global solidarity, isolationism dominates. People fleeing the effects of climate change are turned away with more and more brutal methods. Up to now, the richest countries’ spending on the erection of obstacles to migration is at least twice as high as their climate budgets. Who shall pay for adaptation measures, and loss and damage in the Global South, remains a matter of dispute.

But even in Germany, the challenges are enormous, too.

Summer heatwaves now cause more deaths than do traffic accidents. Many traditional plant species can no longer be cultivated, while large numbers of animal species are threatened by extinction.

Adaptation is not a choice; reality is forcing it on us as a necessity. The question is what form adaptation will take.

In many places, the politics of adaptation tends to be reactive rather than proactive, authoritarian rather than democratic, and privatised and technocratic rather than public and universal. Much too often, the politics of adaptation ignores massive social inequalities, which are themselves being exacerbated by the effects of climate change. A serious plan for climate adaptation would need to focus on those who are most affected and create good living conditions for everybody.

To achieve this, however, will require exploding the narrowly defined boundaries of the “politically possible” and mobilising and redistributing massive amounts of resources. If adaptation is not part of a comprehensive socio-ecological transformation, it will fail the majority of people.

The established approaches to adaptation

It is true that in Germany the issue has now been recognised as urgent at the political level. However, responses have been inadequate.

For the last 17 years, authorities and scientific networks, led by the Ministry for the Environment, have been working on what is known as the German Adaptation Strategy (Deutschen Anpassungsstrategie or DAS), developing risk analyses and recommendations concerning matters ranging from agriculture and forestry to transportation and healthcare. Local governments have also been required to come up with plans.

Nonetheless, in scope and tempo these measures lag far behind what is needed. Their implementation is held up by bureaucratic red tape. Massive investments in infrastructure—for water and healthcare provision, transport, and protection against disasters—are necessary, however there is a lack of both financial resources and people ready to tackle these issues, and local governments, which are in precarious financial situations, are already overextended.

While on the adaptation front the wheels turn slowly, elsewhere a different kind of development carries on unimpeded: concrete is poured, motorways are expanded, and towers of glass erected.

Moreover, the DAS concentrates on technical measures such as the dyke construction, drainage systems, and building standards. By contrast, social, health, and urban policy, which have immediate influence on the social ramifications of the effects of climate change, are hardly considered.

It took a long time for the risk analyses to take the social factors that make people vulnerable to the effects of climate change into account at all. Policies that could benefit poor and vulnerable groups—tenant-friendly financing of renovations for energy-efficiency, for example—have so far been left off the agenda, a mistake that will have grave consequences.

Inequality is exacerbated

Environmental risks do not affect everyone equally: that is clear even from the midsummer temperature gap between the suburban villa with its garden and the unrenovated, prefabricated block of flats.

The risks of climate change hit those hardest who are already suffering the most under a shrunken social services sector: people in precarious work and housing situations, older people, people with health problems, and also people with disabilities.

Adaptation policies need to be designed to counteract this tendency. If the polices are oblivious to inequality, social divisions are liable to become even deeper. This has also been made strikingly clear by the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Urban policy can illustrate the point. In a deregulated housing market, even sensible measures such as removing impervious surfaces to leave green areas, or renovating buildings, can contribute to social segregation. “Green zones” that incorporate traffic-calming measures can lead to rising rents and the displacement of poorer residents.

Spanish urban studies researcher Isabelle Anguelovski has analysed such “green gentrification” processes around the world. She describes how urban adaptation policy often works in a top-down manner and ignores those who are most affected.

Even disaster relief efforts and reconstruction can lead to displacement if survivors are unable to afford to return to their homes or are even resettled, as happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to Ivonne Yanez from the Ecuadorian group Acción Ecológica, infrastructure projects in the Global South that are supposed to support adaptation or mitigation also often lead to the displacement of marginalised people.

Is a different adaptation possible?

Why does the dominant policy approach fail so completely when it comes to adaptation to the effects of climate change? One reason is the neoliberal clear-felling of recent decades, which in Germany, too, has run down social infrastructure and psychological resources, and decimated staffing levels and stores of knowledge in state apparatuses.

Additionally, adaptation policy is primarily infrastructure policy, and dependent on public investment. If this fails to materialise or is blocked by neoliberal balanced-budget provisions, then that limits the options for effective adaptation as well.

Demonstration on 5 August in Bangladesh in support of climate reparations. Photo by Fridays for Future, Bangladesh

At the same time, the social fractures that the climate crisis makes foreseeable will be so drastic that they will lead to a serious crisis of legitimacy for the dominant politics and the capitalist state—within societies, but also internationally.

The contradiction between the capitalist state’s roles in enabling accumulation, and in legitimising social arrangements, will be exacerbated. It is the contradiction between the tasks of organising favourable conditions for the valorisation of capital, and at the same time securing public assent to an extremely unequal social order.

That this assent is becoming ever more precarious doesn’t necessarily play into the hands of the left, but it does open up the possibility of intervening. If the left can develop and promote measures aimed at radical reforms that actually protect—or even improve—the living conditions of the many.

Which measures would a left-wing politics of adaptation based in principles of solidarity need to focus on? And which alliances would be necessary in order to give them a real chance at being implemented? These are urgent strategic questions.

For such measures to be pursued, governmental and social capacities for climate adaptation would have to be expanded or newly created. At the same time, the structural limits that such efforts run up against within the capitalist state should not be ignored.

It is essential to wage a struggle for influence over the governmental institutions of adaptation and, together with progressive forces inside the apparatus (such as in the Ministry for the Environment, the German Environment Agency, or in local government administrations), to shift the bounds of what is feasible. This will only be possible if the relations of force within society are significantly altered—only if social movements and labour struggles build up pressure behind the demands.

It is true that the climate movement in the Global North has strengthened significantly in recent years. But—in the interest of future generations—it has concentrated on mitigation and has so far hardly discussed issues of adaptation. The next step would be to develop a perspective on climate justice that concerns itself with the issue of adaptation. This context in particular makes it apparent that only internationalist approaches which fight against the interests of capital can adequately deal with the climate crisis.

Adaptation to climate change can either restrict itself to absorbing the shock of the socio-ecologically destructive effects of a mode of production, without calling its mechanisms into question, or it can ignite a fundamental reconstruction of society. For the latter to be possible, a broad movement would have to gain strength and develop concrete proposals.

Many obstacles stand in the way of this struggle, but there is also an opportunity. For massive climate disruptions will make “realistic”, pragmatic, business-as-usual approaches appear increasingly implausible. Fundamentally different modes of production and reproduction, property relations, and a democratisation of the economy offer the only chance to keep open the prospect of a liveable future for all. If the left wishes to have a future, it will have to champion this issue.

Left-wing adaptation means wanting more!

A left-wing politics of adaptation is distinguished by the fact that it not only aims at “explicit” measures, but also “implicit” ones. Explicit measures are primarily infrastructural and technical: levee banks are made higher, impervious surfaces removed, or cool rooms installed. All of this is essential and can save lives. Implicit adaptation, however, also considers social relations, which determine which implications the effects of climate change will ultimately have. This kind of adaptation aims to protect those most severely affected and also poses the question of how we really want, and are able, to live.

If protection against the consequences of climate change is to be effective, society needs to become more egalitarian. That requires that core left-wing demands be implemented. These range from upgrading the energy performance of social housing, to the demand for ecological agriculture with climate-resilient cultivation practices and the creation of relationships of distribution between urban and rural settings that are based on solidarity, to the demand for more public places and community gardens.

Concrete environmental justice measures stretch from the dismantling of major roads (where mostly poorer people live) and the expansion of public transport, to better working conditions in sectors such as construction and agriculture.

Finally, shortened working hours are also essential in order to create space for the labour of caring for human beings and nature, which is becoming ever more important.

At a global level, it is just as important to open borders for (climate) migrants and refugees as it is to support the Global South in dealing with the damage done by climate change. A climate politics that undermines capacities in the Global South to adapt to climate change, for example via resource-intensive mobility by means of electric cars, is incompatible with this.

These essentials of left-wing politics are not new, but they have now become especially urgent. The “egalitarian aspects of urban life [offer] the best sociological and physical premisses for the conservation of resources and the reduction of CO2 emissions”, as the urban sociologist Mike Davis wrote more than ten years ago.

The point can be extended to the politics of adaptation to climate change, but also to rural areas. The horizon of a left-wing politics of adaptation must lie in the overcoming both of social domination and the domination of nature. This is the foundation for a response to the climate crisis that is rooted in solidarity—for a campaign from below that makes something better from the bad.

What may we hope for?

Let us zoom in once more to the urban heatwave of 2050, only this time under different circumstances. What might an alternative, solidarity-based approach to the effects of climate change look like? The nights are still tropical, pushing many to their bodily and psychological limits. But fresh air and cooling are guaranteed for all.

A public warning app provides daily climate data and directions to the nearest cool rooms and drinking fountains. Risk groups are actively addressed and, where need be, accompanied to the public cool or air-conditioned rooms. Projects to remove impervious surfaces have created fresh-air corridors, public pools can be visited for free.

Car traffic has been relegated to outside inner city areas, with the streets being repurposed or dismantled. Car parks have become green areas and community gardens.

In newly constructed social housing, natural building materials, shade provision, and cooling effects through greenery make the heat tolerable. Large housing estates have also been retrofitted and since the socialisation of housing development corporations, rents have been capped for the long term. Nonetheless, many people prefer to live outside the cities with their hotter temperatures, and good, cost-free public transport connections make this possible.

This world would not be perfect either, but rather a world of frequent extreme weather events and ongoing environmental crises. It would frequently be necessary to respond to shortages and repair damage. The most seriously affected countries of the Global South would have to receive extensive reparations payments from those who once profited from fossil capitalism – not only for climate mitigation, but also for adaptation, loss, and damage; for the necessarily massive investments in technical and social infrastructure.

Where adaptation is not possible, migration flows will continue to swell. To enable freedom of movement for these people and to make new, secure forms of existence possible for them is the major political task.

By now, the scope of the utopia we have sketched should be clear. A world in which the effects of climate change are dealt with in solidarity would be a completely different, radically changed world, that necessarily included global justice.

The road to this world is not easy. But if we devise policies that do not deny the effects of climate change, but instead make them the point of departure for social change, then we can see what stands to be gained: a future worth fighting for. 26 August 2022.

All of the authors currently work at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis. An earlier version of this text was published in German in the magazine LuXemburg, 2-2022.

People & Nature adds: The issue of adaptation has indeed been “often pushed aside”, even though it is perhaps “the social question of the coming age”, as these authors argue. So this discussion is very welcome. Confronting what a world two degrees warmer would be like can help us to understand the way that global heating is redoubling and accentuating the widening chasm between rich and poor countries, and the social inequalities within countries. Facing up to how people would live in such a world reinforces the fight to stop every extra cubic metre of greenhouse gas being put into the atmosphere; these are not alternatives. I welcome, and would be happy to publish, responses and further discussion about this. SP.

Read also on People & Nature: a review of The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, and an excerpt from the book.

One Response to Climate adaptation: more sea walls will not be enough

  1. Paula Cerni says:

    My basic take on this issue. The planet has been warming for over 300 years, yet in that time human well-being has increased enormously – thanks in large measure to industrialization made possible by fossil fuels. This economic model cannot and will not be replaced overnight, so carbon emissions will continue for several decades (perhaps to be replaced, eventually, by a nuclear-powered economy). It’s quite likely that atmospheric CO2 will reach 500ppm in that time. However, I expect the worst fears of the environmentalists to be proved wrong. If previous cycles of global warming during this interglacial are a guide (the Medieval Warm Period, the Roman Warm Period), temperatures will not go up much higher before they cool down again. Climate change, while real, is not an existential threat nor is it the most important problem facing humanity. Our priorities should be lifting living standards, building up social infrastructure and democratic rights – which are in any case the best “adaptation” to heatwaves, volcanos, earthquakes, pandemics, or anything else that comes our way.

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