Wed 17 Aug 2011
I’ve been at this blogging thing for a little over 13 months, and on twitter for maybe nine months. I’ve found both venues tremendously productive – I feel like I have a whole new community to which I belong that has helped to expand my horizons and change some of my perspectives on development and aid. Nearly every day I learn something from the folks I am connected to via these social media – and that is the highest praise I can offer anyone or anything. I get bored easily, and when I am bored I get cranky. My wife thanks you for keeping me interested and amused.
So, after 13 months I think I have a sense of the landscape around these here development/aid parts . . . and I am stunned to realize there is something missing. How is this blog the only one I know of that engages both development and global environmental change at roughly equal depths? Well, this one and Global Dashboard, sort of . . . I do like Global Dashboard, though.
Now, I can see why the aid/relief (as opposed to aid/development focused – see my parsing below) blogs really don’t spend a ton of time on climate change – mostly, they are coming from the front lines of work, the sharp end of the implementation spear, as it were. Folks are caught in the immediacy of response to disaster, or buried in the myriad small tasks that can completely overwhelm staff at the implementation end of a recovery project. There is an existential quality to these blogs, because there is an existential quality to that existence. I can understand this.
Then there are the aid/development blogs – those that are focused on thinking about the long-term transition from poverty to something better for the global poor. Yes, aid is part of how we address this challenge, but really development is about long-term social, economic and political transformation. It does not unfold in rapid manner, and therefore lends itself to more protracted musings. Further, because aid/relief is focused on an acute situation, there is a short time horizon for planning and thinking – ideally with some sort of handover to long-term development programs, though we all know this does not happen as often or as smoothly as anyone would like. Aid/development, on the other hand, has a much longer time horizon – the intervention, ideally, should be producing results on a generational timescale (project reporting requirements aside, of course). Yet even on these blogs, I see very little attention being paid to climate change or environmental change – though these are processes that are likely transforming the very future worlds we are planning toward with our development projects and policies.
Here’s the thing: both the relief and development communities need to be thinking about global environmental change. Period.
Today, my thoughts for the aid/relief blogs and thinkers – and I offer this with genuine sympathy for their situations as acute responders who are overburdened by various administrative requirements: climate/environmental change is not somebody else’s problem. Nobody wants to hear this when they are on the front lines, as it were, but how we do relief and recovery has tremendous implications for global environmental change . . . and of course these changes will shape a lot of relief and recovery going forward. I know that most relief agencies start from the mandate of saving lives – everything else is secondary to that. I respect this . . . but it does not exclude the idea of thinking about and addressing environmental issues in their work. If we are serious about saving lives, lots of lives, we’d better get ahead of the curve in thinking about future response needs – what is going to happen, and where. For example, we expect to see ever-greater climate variability over the next several decades, which means that we are going to see less predictable weather, and perhaps more extreme weather events, in many places. While there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing of these events and the ranges of variability we might see, we are already coming to understand where some of the most acute changes are taking place (a lot of them in Africa, sadly) – and we can plan our resources for those areas. At the same time, we see fisheries collapsing around the world, with huge impacts on the diets and well-being of onshore communities – we know exactly where these events are happening, and we know exactly why, so we certainly can plan for this slow onset emergency.
As we think about recovery programs, we will have to do more than put it back as it was (the common mandate) . . . we will have to help build something that has the flexibility and resilience to adapt to a changing future. Neither of these efforts requires a fundamental rethinking of relief and recovery work, just some will to spend a few minutes BEFORE a disaster happens to think through how to address these challenges.
More difficult is thinking through the impact of our relief and recovery efforts on the global environment. What we use for temporary shelters, how we move and dispose of rubble, where we procure food aid, all of these things and much more result in varying levels and types of environmental impact. When we are busy saving lives in the here and now, I understand it can be hard to think about these issues – but many times we botch this part of the relief work, creating long-term environment and health issues that end up costing lives. Our recovery work often recommends new land uses and agricultural strategies, which have ecological and greenhouse emissions ramifications. We often suggest new livelihoods practices, which involve the use of new natural resources, and therefore introduce new environmental impacts with uncertain long-term ramifications. Someone needs to do an accounting of how many lives are saved in the immediate post-disaster setting by ignoring these issues, and how many are lost over the longer term by the impacts of ignoring these issues. I am willing to wager that there are many cases were the long-term losses exceed the short-term saved . . . mostly because I am not all that convinced that considering such issues will really slow things down that much if we have decent forward planning. This holds true even for the greenhouse emissions – I wonder how many extra tons of carbon we put out unnecessarily each year because we don’t consider the greenhouse implications of our relief/recovery work? Further, I wonder if those emissions are contributing in a meaningful way to the climate change trends that we see globally, or if they are just tiny noise in a giant ocean of emissions. If these emissions are the latter, then I think we are free to ignore them . . . but I don’t see anyone presenting that data.
So, to summarize for my aid/relief colleagues, despite your completely overtaxed, over-mandated and over-paperworked lives, you need to be reading blogs like Global Dashboard, Climate Science Watch, and RealClimate (OK, RealClimate is probably too technical). You need to become aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and familiarize yourself with the Working Group 2 report (human impacts) – it gives you the scientific community’s best assessment of what the coming challenges are, and where they will occur. When the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation goes public, that will be a crucial tool. All the IPCC stuff is free for download, and written in relatively clear language (well, clear compared to the journals). The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment might be useful, too – check the Current States and Trends report. And, failing that, keep reading this blog – even the posts on climate change. You’ll find them useful, I swear.
Next up: the aid/development argument: seriously, I need to go over this? Fine, fine . . .