Helping the developing world adapt to climate change

Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio discusses “The role of ecological theory and practice in poverty alleviation and environmental conservation,” in the latest Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

The daily challenges of survival in the developing world are often fundamentally ecological in nature. The world’s poorest people are highly dependent on ecosystem services to provide food, clean water, and energy in the form of biomass or fuelwood. In this month’s Frontiers, De Clerck et al. (2006) highlight the many ways in which ecological knowledge can be applied to improve the lives of the world’s poor. There is much that can and is being done to leverage the lessons of ecology to reduce global poverty.

However, underlying global climate change over the next century has the potential to significantly undermine poverty-fighting efforts. Poor communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their lack of economic safety nets and high level of dependence on natural resources for survival (Thomas and Twyman, 2005). The stresses of water shortages, floods, heat waves, increased spread of some infectious diseases, and sea level rise will certainly complicate development efforts, let alone individual struggles for survival and betterment.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Nairobi, Kenya that concluded a few weeks ago, highlighted the challenges that developing nations will face in coping with the dual needs of greater economic development and coping with projected climate change. Cities such as Lagos, Nigeria, where 15 million people live at sea level – some in overcrowded floating slums – will have to develop strategies and infrastructure to cope with rising sea levels. The city of Lima, Peru will have to find sources other than glacial meltwater to supply its more than 7 million inhabitants with water (1 million of whom don’t currently have access to regular running water). The rain-fed agricultural systems on the borders of the Sahel are likely to see even less rainfall and more frequent crop failures, necessitating humanitarian interventions and derailing the modest development progress made in the region.

For too long the international policy discussion on climate change has been dominated by the discourse on mitigating or halting greenhouse gas release to the atmosphere. While this is certainly critical, and the only way to eventually stop global warming, there is increasing consensus that climate change is already occurring and that human communities will need to adapt to new trends, extremes, and variabilities in the climate system.

Fortunately, here too ecology has important lessons and tools to contribute to both policy-level discussions on climate change adaptation and to developing effective coping strategies. For instance, ecosystem science can help:

  • provide true measures of the protective roles of ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands, and floodplains to extreme weather events,
  • elucidate how weather-driven changes will affect biota and the human communities that depend on these resources for survival,
  • identify effective ways to supplement natural adaptive capacities of species, such as through active species translocations, seed banks, etc.,
  • promote more sustainable land management practices and contribute land-use planning tools to help communities actively plan for altered climate regimes.

However, there are also important gaps in our knowledge of how ecosystems function that will need to be addressed to generate better coping strategies. For instance we need more research to:

  • understand the role of biota and ecosystem services in dampening the socioeconomic disruptions that may be caused by climate change,
  • identify critical thresholds climate-driven ecosystem functions before they are crossed, and
  • develop, through greater experimentation with ecosystem restoration, proven measures to bring degraded systems back from the brink,
  • evaluate the costs and benefits of using engineered ecosystems to provide more adaptive services to human communities (such as wetlands for water storage and purification) versus traditional engineered solutions which may be less flexible and rendered non-functional under altered climate regimes (such as dams).

Developing answers to these questions will be critical to helping the world’s poorest improve their lives and cope with a changing climate in the coming decades to centuries. We are facing a perhaps unprecedented scientific and political challenge in coping with the likely impacts of climate change. But we also have a moral and ethical imperative to meet the challenge in a timely manner.

DeClerck, F., Ingram J.C., Rumbaitis del Rio, C.M. 2006. The role of ecological theory and practice in poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 4: 533–40.

Thomas, D. S. G. and Twyman, C. 2005. Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environmental Change 15: 115–24.

Contributed by Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, Columbia University Earth Institute

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