The opportunities of climate change

26 April 2011

It's not always a great idea to acknowledge that bad things can create opportunities – but they can. Bad things cause suffering and tragedy, but they can also destabilise the status quo, open space for new discussions, and give an impetus to groups looking for positive change.

This is particularly relevant for climate change, which is likely to challenge governments and social systems in a way that has never happened before. This point has been made by Mark Pelling, who in his new book, Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation, argues that adapting to climate change should be seen as an opportunity to challenge existing social contracts and unequal relationships.

Good instability and bad instability

A good example is the discussion over climate change and its potential to cause "instability" and threat to "security". This issue has apparently been rising up the priority list of military establishments and has been used by some environmentalists to advocate mitigation policies.

Aside from the debate over whether the climate "threat" to security is actually significant, there is a need to question the assumption that all forms of instability are bad.

In fact, a quick glance of history shows us that environmental shocks have led to sweeping political changes, some of which were positive. Pelling himself identifies Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Mexico as countries that saw an opening of democratic space following natural disasters.

Right now, in the Arab world, it has been suggested that hikes in food prices have encouraged populations to challenge their regimes, to date leading to two changes of governments and widespread unrest in other countries. If it is true that food price hikes provided the spark for the demonstrations, and if changes in the climate have had a role in those food price rises, wouldn't that make recent events the Middle East a case of "good" climate change destabilisation?

Environmental shocks can expose governments that are corrupt, elitist or inefficient, such as the earthquake in Nicaragua that undermined the Somoza dynasty in 1972. Instability can also generate space for ideas and discussion, which is potentially empowering for societies.

This is not simply an issue for dictatorships – democratic politicians who are unresponsive to their populations may also find themselves challenged. By increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, could climate change force governments to respond to their citizen's needs and establish transparent systems of governments?

Taking advantage of bad things

Of course, because climate change is clearly a global "bad" that will require some fundamental transformations if it is to be addressed, it stands to reason that advocacy groups tend to overlook any potential positive outcomes. Also, the very idea of taking advantage of tragic events to push for change is nauseous to many people.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argued strongly that "neoliberals" have often exploited shocks to usher in free-market capitalism. But if that's true, the right are not the only ones. The concept of exploiting shocks has long been shared across the political spectrum, albeit rarely stated openly.

Sadly, there is no guarantee that opportunities are exploited for good purposes. One of the worst examples was in Ethiopia, where Haile Selassie's failure to deal with a drought led to his fall and the rise of the communist dictatorship of Haile Miriam Mengistu. In fact, the management of droughts by Mengistu's regime was even worse, and – partly for that reason – he fell from power in 1991.

So perhaps the real issue is not whether or not climate change will increase opportunities for political and social change, but who will take advantage and for what purpose. In particular, it will fall on societies and social movements to ensure that changes are positive. This will include slum organisations that mobilise for safe and secure housing, right to food activists, and smallholder organisations.

Even organisations whose causes have not been framed in terms of climate change, such as those calling for social protection, could find their arguments are strengthened by increasing climate awareness.

Adaptation, politics and power

Being aware of the potential openings created by climate-related instability will be particularly important for those NGOs, social movements and researchers concerned with adaptation to climate change. To date, much of adaptation has been limited to technical innovations and pilot projects, and has been slightly apart from broader processes of political reform and transformation.

However, if adaptation is to work for the poor, it needs to be an inherently political process, and one intent on addressing broader issues such as inequalities in power and social marginalisation. This means engaging with wider processes and issues, including ones that do not always have obvious links to climate change, in order to ensure that the opportunities created by climate change are seized.

This article was also posted on the Guardian´s blog, Poverty Matters.