We all have encountered someone using this argument: “Of course we will survive regardless of climate change, ice age or meteorites on earth – humans have always adapted, and always will”. But, what is telling history and science about such a statement? This article has been written by Thomas Wagner and published on Bon Pote. This piece has been translated from french, with the author’s agreement – the original version here. We invite you to follow him and his blog media – a true gold mine.

“Humans have always adapted”. This argument is frequently used, especially by reassurance seekers: they admit that climate change is a problem and is not so serious because “humans have always adapted”.

Responding to this argument is not so simple and will land you in Brandolini’s law. Indeed, humanity has never disappeared, and climate change will not threaten the species’ survival, at least not by the end of the century. Even with a climate that warms up by 5°C, there may still be some humans playing online with 16G on their iPhone 42. On the other hand, some people (knowingly?) forget to mention that natural climate variability has, in the past, caused major disruptions to human societies, with many victims—a detail.

So we need to ask the right questions. While we cannot talk about the disappearance of humanity, climate change is transforming and will profoundly transform our world. What will be the consequences, and for whom? In what order of magnitude? Will all countries have the means to adapt quickly enough to cope with it? Why are we procrastinating in our adaptation policies, including in France?

We answer these questions with the help of Magali Reghezza, geographer and member of the High Council for the Climate (HCC).

Foreword: What is adaptation?

For the IPCC, “adaptation is a process of adjusting to current or expected changes in climate and its consequences. Although climate change is a global problem, its impacts are felt differently around the world. The measures taken are often dictated by the local context so that people adapt differently in different regions. Further increases in global temperature from 1°C today to 1.5°C or more above pre-industrial levels would increase the need to adapt. Stabilising warming at 1.5°C would require less adaptation effort than at 2°C. Despite many successes, progress is incipient in many regions and unevenly distributed across the globe.”

Adaptation is how societies and individuals ensure their resilience, e.g., coping with a disturbance and/or recovering from a shock. Fair adaptation must enable all populations to preserve their means of subsistence without seeing their living conditions deteriorate, whether we think in terms of income, health, life expectancy, etc.

Features of a novel adaptation

Successful adaptation to current and future anthropogenic climate change requires many conditions, which may already contradict the idea that survival will achieve it because it has always been achieved:

  • Given the speed and scale of the changes, technical solutions, assuming the technologies are mastered, will only be effective if a certain level of warming is not exceeded. Adapting if the sea level rises by only one metre is possible, provided we have the financial and technological resources (but this is still a detail). If we reach 2 or even 3 metres, it is already much more complicated, if not impossible.
  • Adaptive capabilities will vary greatly from one individual to another, from one company to another, from one social group to another, and the implementation of climate risk reduction measures depends largely on local and national contexts (we will come back to this).
  • Successful adaptation can be ‘enhanced by national and sub-national action, with central governments playing an important role in coordination, planning, prioritisation, resource allocation and assistance’. Anticipation is essential, despite the uncertainties, but it is clearly not happening, even in the richest and most technologically advanced countries.
  • In too many parts of the world, thinking about adaptation has barely begun. The IPCC questions the ability of the most vulnerable populations to cope with any additional warming to 1.2°C. This is problematic, as we are expected to exceed +1.5°C in the 2030+ decade.

Finally, adaptation requires broad support in technological and financial aid (States, local authorities, companies, etc.) and support for behavioural changes for all stakeholders (not just citizens). It will not be enough to turn on the air conditioning or desalinate seawater if the world warms up by a few more degrees. It is therefore essential to challenge the idea that adaptation is easy and painless.

Deconstructing the adaptation

Historically, adaptation has been mainly local, through reactive adjustments and learning, as communities learn from catastrophic events and mistakes. While the development of science and technology has certainly made it possible to provide better protection, extreme hydro-climatic events have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths over the centuries, either directly or through the famines, food shortages and economic and political unrest have engendered. Transforming societies and habitats, modifying practices and developing technical solutions has taken centuries!

Anthropogenic climate change is unique, both in its speed and its magnitude. Humans have never had to adapt to such changes. This is why saying “humans have always adapted” is false or at least misleading. We may have adapted, but to what extent and at what cost?

Why talk about adaptation when we are talking about human societies?

Adaptation is a scientific concept that has been used since the 19th century to understand the relationship between living beings and their environment. Originating in biology, where adaptation is central to the theory of evolution, the term was quickly adopted to study the relationship between human beings and their environment.

Adaptation is used to criticise the influence of the environment on humans, who, unlike other species, have freedom of choice and a capacity to learn, which allow them to transform natural environments as no other animal has ever been able to do. The rejection of “ecological determinism”, i.e. the fact that their natural environment determines an individual, fuels the reflections of the social sciences, particularly geography, on the status and role of human societies in ecosystems. These debates are being revived today in the notion of the Anthropocene.

To assert that human beings are not entirely subject to the influence of their natural environment is to recognise that individuals and social groups can both change and modify their environment to optimise their resources and protect themselves from threats. Without denying the biological evolution of the species over thousands of years, the social sciences, therefore, emphasise what enables humans to inhabit a priori hostile environments (deserts, high mountains, dense forests, sub-polar zones, etc.) and which explains why two societies living in similar climatic, hydrological and topographical conditions can be radically different.

Adaptation accounts for the co-evolution between human societies and their environment. Thinking in terms of adaptation makes it possible to restore individual and collective action and reject the catastrophism that legitimises fatalism and wait-and-see behaviour. But it also requires considering the social, political and environmental conditions that make this action possible and taking a good look at the timeframes in which it takes place and the price to be paid.

What is known about the adaptation of past societies

The study of past societies shows that adaptation is a long, irregular process made up of leaps forward and backwards. The work of archaeologists and historians proves that the transitions on which adaptation is based take place over several decades, if not several centuries. For example, landscapes reveal, to those who know how to read them, the long work of transforming environments: whether in the Netherlands, in Flanders or on the Atlantic coast, we can see the dykes, the drainage works and the floodgates. The design of the polders and canals, which became wider and more regular, reflects the slow acquisition of drainage and flood protection techniques. It took centuries and dozens of floods for pumps to replace mills. The archives of the local lords tell us that the fight against the sea and the control of water came at the cost of the serfs’ drudgery.

Adaptation has required social transformations: in Flanders, for example, the waterings associations, responsible for maintaining the water gangs (drainage works), date from the 12th century and have left their name in the toponymy. However, until recently, deadly events have reminded us of the limits of this age-old adaptation. In 1953, a storm in the North Sea caused almost 1,800 victims in the Netherlands alone. It took almost 40 years for the Delta Plan, which was supposed to protect the country, to be completed, and it is already necessary to think about raising the dikes to protect the Dutch polders from rising sea levels.

The diffusion of social and technological innovations is, therefore, slow and heterogeneous. It excludes territories, social groups and individuals. If it is not anticipated and supported, it has a human, economic and social cost that can be very high. So yes, humanity has been able to adapt to everything, but at the cost of millions of human lives lost or sacrificed and countless material losses.

A successful adaptation in the past is no guarantee of a successful adaptation in the future

The ongoing climate change is so rapid that natural climate variability alone could not be the cause. There is no similar example in human history. But historical examples show the weakness of the “humans have always adapted” argument. In 1815, the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora ejected huge quantities of ash, dust and sulphurous gases into the atmosphere. Temperatures dropped sharply across the globe, and 1816 was dubbed the “year without summer”. Although the winter had been mild in the northern hemisphere, frost destroyed crops in May.

Then came the snowstorms in June, heavy rains and overcast skies with little light. Floods increased, crops were destroyed, famine set in, with its share of revolts, looting and unrest. In China, rice crops were destroyed, and again, famine set in and epidemics raged. Thousands of people were forced into exile, and many died during the journey. Humanity did not disappear, but the deaths were counted in the thousands, including among the richest, even if there was a high excess of deaths among the poorest and the most physically fragile, children and the elderly.

Unlike the men and women of that time, we have the means to anticipate and prepare for disaster. But the longer we wait, the more we reduce our freedom of choice, our ability to offset the costs of transition and protect the weakest. The “year without a summer” shows that not all human beings can adapt to everything and that the more rapid, brutal and intense the change, the less possible it is to respond to it.

Multiple warnings of only +1.2°C global warming

The problem is that the climate is changing, and it is changing faster than expected. We are breaking record after record of temperatures in the four corners of the world, and it is only 2021. Droughts, heatwaves, floods… warnings about the reduction of biodiversity are multiplying, and the human and financial cost of disasters is increasing, with its attendant individual dramas. The climate is changing, and we know that its effects will only get worse. Some parts of the world will probably become uninhabitable – unless we take measures whose human, financial and environmental cost would be exorbitant, effectively excluding most people.

Recent events should make us reflect on the phrase ‘man has always adapted’. In less than two weeks, Canada, a rich industrialised country, experienced a record heatwave of 49.60°C, with the village of Lytton in British Columbia almost 90% destroyed by fire. More than 400 people died as a result of the heatwave (more on this later). All this, at only +1.2°C of global warming.

The village of Lyotton on fire, Canada - June 2021
The village of Lyotton on fire, Canada – June 2021
Credit: Le devoir

As we explained in our article on heatwaves, we cannot normally attribute an extreme weather event to climate change. However, the work of the World Weather Attribution (WWA) highlights 3 critical points:

  • “Rapid climate warming is taking us into uncharted territory, with significant consequences for health, well-being and livelihoods.”
  • “Adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed to prepare societies for a very different future. Adaptation measures need to be much more ambitious and take into account the increased risk of heat waves worldwide.”
  • “Although extreme heat affects everyone, some people are even more vulnerable, including the elderly, young children, people with medical conditions, socially isolated individuals, the homeless, individuals without air conditioning, and (outdoor) workers”. (Singh et al., 2019).

This last point is essential.

Even in developed countries, a changing climate kills

Canada’s heatwave should serve as a warning for the coming decades that even in rich, technologically advanced countries, climate extremes kill. The deaths in British Columbia are an example of climate injustice.

While it is known that some individuals are physically more vulnerable to heatwaves due to their age or state of health, the deaths affect the most disadvantaged social categories, those who cannot afford to leave the city or rush to air-conditioned hotels that are fully booked for a week. In addition, in this region, which does not experience these extreme temperatures, humans did not adapt housing, transport and workplaces to the high temperatures, and the number of air-conditioned spaces was very low. Most of the deaths were people who did not have the physical, financial, family or social resources to cope with the extreme temperatures.

The scientific literature on disasters has shown since the 1960s that there is a close correlation between inequalities linked to age, gender, income, education and health, and the capacity to adapt, whether we look at the level of the individual or the group, whether we look at the local, national or global level. Without ambitious, proactive and anticipatory policies, some will have the privilege of adapting, but how many will be able to say the same?

In addition to the loss of life, we also point out that the fauna and flora will not have time to adapt to such conditions in such a short time. Indeed, even in Bill Gates’ wildest dreams, plants and animals do not have air conditioning. The heatwave is said to have killed 1 billion marine animals. This is why the IPCC and IPBES state that climate and biodiversity are inseparable and that mitigation and adaptation must form a whole. And even if we have little regard for other living species, our survival and well-being depend on them.

An adaptation for all humanity?

As we have seen, there are great disparities in terms of possible ‘adaptation’ to climate hazards at the local level. But this is also true at the national, and especially international, level.

Some regions of the world will be more affected than others by droughts, sea-level rise, heat waves, cyclones, and ocean acidification. The increase in CO2 concentration endangers coral reefs, which could disappear altogether of warming of +2°C.

A concrete example is sea level rise. About 700 million people now live in low-lying coastal areas and are vulnerable to sea-level rise and coastal storms. This number could reach one billion by 2050. Rising sea levels and storms could completely wipe out island nations such as the Maldives, Seychelles, Kiribati and others. Even a rise of just one metre, probably unavoidable today, will displace millions of people in Florida and along the Gulf coast. The damage will be in the billions, as will the loss of life and property.

Furthermore, sea-level rise is not uniform and varies greatly according to location and coastline shape—the greater the exposure and vulnerability, the greater the impact. For example, we explained the consequences for the Fiji Islands. While these inhabitants are among the soberest inhabitants of the planet, they will suffer the full force of the excesses of other countries, and it is doubtful that the entire population will 1) want to relocate 2) have the opportunity to do so. Money will not ‘compensate’ for the excesses, nor will it protect everything, let alone repair it, especially as this money struggles to come through the Green Climate Fund, even though it was foreseen in the Paris Agreement.

Who claims that “humans have always adapted”?

Having deconstructed the claim that “humans have always adapted” and shown that adaptation to current and future climate change requires rapid action and political will and leadership, it is interesting to understand who is using this fallacious idea.

Indeed, despite the scientific community’s warnings and the many reports of various international organisations such as the IPCC, IPBES, WWA, etc., the refrain is still used. The little tune persists in public opinion. If it does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, it has a double purpose: political and economic.

First of all, the economic interest. In a text on the said punitive ecology, we recalled the following: “The problem is not whether humanity will adapt, but what efforts will be required and who will have to pay. Indeed, some companies (and people) have more economic interest in perpetuating Business as Usual, i.e., in nothing changing. Certainly, there are co-benefits for many sectors in adopting proactive adaptation, but all economic actors would have to make a radical change in their model to do so. Similarly, some elected officials will prefer to invest in other areas, either because they have to deal with short-term social and economic emergencies or out of pure electoral interest. Investing in medium/long-term adaptation is ungrateful, as it will be the next generation that will reap the benefits of the actions undertaken by their predecessors.

Then comes the political interest. In the same way, with the same short-term logic and the pursuit of Business as Usual, it is obvious that saying “man has always adapted” has a reassuring, reassuring side, thus avoiding the French to worry too much, because it is true that finally, this climate change is not really a problem! Just like the expression “punitive ecology”, it is once again used by right-wing and far-right politicians, liberals and people who think that we will find technical solutions no matter what. So we need to buy time to fix what can be fixed. There is no trace of a political figure on the left saying “man has always adapted” in the press or on a TV set, except to respond to a polemic. The same is true of scientists specialising in climate issues.

The technical solution

The technical solution is ‘obvious’ to cope with current and future climate hazards. We have explained that it is not and that in addition to being reactive and palliative, this technical adaptation has taken decades, even centuries. At the rate at which the Earth is warming, we do not have centuries to prevent hundreds of millions of people from being unable to cope with climate impacts.

Moreover, this technical solution is one of the 12 speeches of climate inaction: “no need to change, we will find a technical solution”. This is what David Pujadas said with a smile on his set last June: “anyway, with the technological means we have today, we have plenty to do, no! We were also entitled to our expression: “Humans have always adapted. Humanity adapted to ice ages”.

What Louis de Raguenel forgets to mention is that part of humanity disappeared during these ice ages. Once again, a detail!

It is also essential to remember that just because we have the technical solution does not mean it will be implemented. To do this, we need the financial, human and technological resources, which are often lacking, particularly in the most at-risk territories (e.g. Madagascar and the famine, or the Green Climate Fund, which has never been up to the task). Even so, this technical solution must be accepted by the political and economic players and the population. Vaccination, for example, makes it possible to eradicate certain diseases, but without the involvement of governments, companies and citizens, this technical solution is impossible.

Final words

Adaptation is important to reduce the negative impacts of climate change but will never be sufficient to prevent the consequences fully. On the other hand, the higher the global temperature rises, the more severe the consequences. Adaptation is not an excuse to stop mitigation efforts. On the contrary, the more time passes, the greater the risk of irreversible thresholds being exceeded (at least on a human scale).

The loss of coral reefs, the massive loss of habitat for terrestrial species, and the destruction of ecosystems caused by extreme heat, droughts, or fires reduce coastal livelihoods in islands and low-lying coasts. In the short term, it is the carbon sinks that will be threatened, further jeopardising the achievement of carbon neutrality and the possibility of containing climate change within the 2-degree limit.

In mitigation, every half-degree counts. In adaptation, every year of delay puts the survival and well-being of more and more people at risk.