Band-aids won’t save the polar bears: smarter climate adaptation needed

It used to be all ice fields around here
It used to be all ice fields around here

Today’s post is by Naazia Ebrahim of the OECD Environment Directorate

The polar bear, floating mournfully away on an ice floe as his habitat melts around him, is perhaps one of the most well-travelled symbols of the impacts of climate change. The bear is removed just enough from the vast majority of the world’s population to be a perfect object of fixation: unusual, unique, but still cute enough to capture the attention of children, and adults, everywhere. (The blobfish may beg to differ.)

On current trends, the polar bear is going to require some help if it is to survive. Unfortunately, due to the bears’ remote location and specific feeding habits, any intervention will be drastic: one suggestion has been to use helicopters to air-drop food, to the tune of $32,000 a day for the “most accessible” bears. To survive is its right as a fellow member of the ecological community – but as adaptation goes, this is clearly not ideal. Not only is it extremely expensive, but it could also cause a large amount of carbon emissions and environmental disturbance. Sadly, it may be the only option in this case.

Nevertheless, it does provide a valuable lesson: “band-aid” solutions are very often expensive, inefficient, and wasteful. Given sufficient time and money, we could continue along our current path and engineer workarounds to some of the expected impacts of climate change when the time comes. But why take the risk? Not all impacts can be predicted or adapted to in any meaningful manner, and addressing others would require expensive solutions that fail to help the most vulnerable and may be environmentally damaging. Significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are essential, but they need to be combined with smart preparations for the future.

The OECD argues that a better way to approach adaptation is to plan smartly for long-term trends. Starting early enough, keeping an eye on possible future impacts, and thinking systematically about the interactions of these impacts with society’s structures are all key to avoiding long-term lock-in – or in other words, a path that leaves society’s institutions unable to adapt to unexpected changes.

There are numerous examples of this “smart adaptation” in practice. Denmark, for example, is creating waterways in Copenhagen to accommodate “cloudburst” flash downpours; Australia has committed AUD 3.1 billion to restoring the Murray-Darling Basin, including by buying back irrigation entitlements; and Colombia is promoting climate-smart agriculture through a combination of efficient irrigation schemes, specialised crop varieties, and improved farming techniques. These adaptation initiatives are not only cost-effective but also create co-benefits, which are another pillar of our smart adaptation principles: bonus economic, social, and environmental improvements on top of the intent of the project. Copenhagen’s waterways reduce drainage needs while also providing opportunities for recreation. Colombia’s agricultural initiatives are expected to increase food security while also raising on-farm incomes, reducing poverty, and creating greater ecosystem resilience.

Human ingenuity is capable of creating many things: ski slopes in the desert, artificial islands, flights to the moon (or to feed polar bears). But why waste resources when, by planning ahead from now, we can reduce costs, create co-benefits, avoid exaggerating the environmental impacts of adaptation, and leave ourselves some breathing room to boot? And who knows, maybe along the way we’ll find a better way of getting food to those polar bears.

Useful links

OECD work on climate change adaptation

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