We have to adapt culturally to climate change

While the case that climate change is happening and probably irreversible is robust, the political arguments about whether we should do anything about it remain ongoing and unresolved. Many in the minority world (like Britain and the USA) are relying upon technological innovation (like wind power, electric cars and geo-engineering) to save us. Research shows that while many individuals have engaged in making small changes in their lifestyle – such as using recycling bins or cycling a little more – most struggle to make big behavioural changes and feel powerless to take on the changes necessary to really mitigate further carbon emissions. Time is running out to make changes at a big enough scale to mitigate further climatic changes.

Adapting is sometimes touted as the easier option. Rather than fundamentally changing everything about how we live today, we could plan for a different future and increase our resilience to any changes ahead. There is, of course, just as much debate as to how we should prepare for these changes as there is about how to mitigate climate change. We should be careful not to be naive about what this actually involves. For a start, climate change is likely to lead to more extreme climatic events; an unpredictability that is difficult to plan for. Predicting what climatic changes will occur is a difficult science, yet alone interpreting what that means for how we live. Moreover, the magnitude of climate changes depends on whether we can reduce carbon emissions now, keep them stable, or increase them yet further. So if we are to take the adaptation route we have to plan for a variety of different scenarios and we should not abandon all attempts at mitigation. Mitigation has effectively become about trying to reduce the extent to which we need to adapt: it is not an either/or situation.

If we take housing as an example we can begin to understand the complexity and possibility of making these changes. Housing – both in construction and use – consumes significant amounts of energy and contribute at least 25% of all carbon emissions in Britain[i]. The Met Office predict that temperatures will rise in Britain with increasing heatwaves and fewer frost days. At the same time we will have increased rainfall, more intensive rain showers, sea level rise, coastal surge events and more storms. In other words, we need to be prepared for flooding, storms and heat. If we don’t, then not only will our houses suffer from damage but we will continue to increase our use of energy as more people need air conditioning to keep their houses cool – creating a vicious circle of increased emissions and then greater temperature rises.

Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation, Taos, New Mexico, USA

We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. While there is a huge variety of different types of eco-homes (from those using only local natural materials to the more technological), most have been built to be resilient in today’s climate, with low energy use, or autonomous (generating their own energy, collecting rainwater, dealing with their own waste etc). However, there are several problems with our attempts thus far; cost, suitability for the future, retrofitting, and, most importantly, cultural understandings of the home. There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper; we are too used to considering cost only at the build stage. But we do need to find better ways of making land, traditionally very expensive in Britain, more available for eco-building.

Clay and grass-roofed residential house at Panya Project, Mae Taeng, Chang Mai, Thailand

We are building eco-housing that is suitable for today’s climate and reduces carbon emissions (mitigating climate change) both of which are important, but it is not enough. We need to be designing houses which will be suitable for the future climate of wet, hot, unpredictable weather. Dr Jago Copper, from Archaeology and Ancient History, has used a archaeological investigation of how pre-Columbian residents in Cuba built their houses to help inform how we might build our houses today. Crucially in his case study area there is evidence of abrupt climatic changes (such as flooding) which people dealt with by innovative settlement locations and building stilted wooden houses. These buildings were in the main quite flimsy and temporary lightweight structures built using easily available local materials. But they had substantive structural posts which were resilient to hurricane winds, so when storms happened most of the house was destroyed, but the main structure survived and was easily rebuilt. They had also often collectively stored food in more secure areas. The lesson here for the modern day is we should look beyond simply being resilient to climatic events to how we are prepared to recover and carry on afterwards. In practical terms this raises questions about whether we should be designing our houses to be more temporary or more durable, training more of us to be able to build our own houses and use more easily available local materials (like we did in the past before the development of bricks). It is also about all of us understanding the subtle balance between the need for insulation and ventilation. We need insulation to reduce draughts and keep us warm but we need ventilation to keep us cool. As the climate changes we are likely to need more ventilation than insulation which could dramatically change the design of our houses.

As soon as we start to talk of building better houses the issue of our existing housing stock is raised. Of course we need to improve these too, but thus far we have focused on quite small changes (such as extra insulation) or adding technology to houses. We need to think more radically about how to adapt these houses to survive climate change, not just reduce carbon emissions.

Earthship (made from old car tyres) in Brighton, East Sussex

Finally, adapting housing for climate change involves considerably more than technical changes to construction; it involves huge cultural shifts in how we consider our house and home. For many, a house is foremost about security – both the physical act of having somewhere safe to live and sleep, and financially as an investment – and comfort. There is a deeply felt sense that our homes are our refuge. To change this, by making housing more temporary, using natural materials (which might be perceived as less robust), or relying on manual heating and ventilation systems, requires social changes in how we live. Moreover, it requires us to build ready for changes that many of us have only vaguely understood to be happening; to change behaviour for an unknown future. It is not technology, or really even politics, which is holding us back in making these changes, it is deep rooted cultural and social understandings of how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

As a result we can understand adapting to climate change is necessary but complex. Even just changing our housing is difficult but entirely possible. To do so we must realise that we need cultural change as much as technological and political change, and that we must ensure that those less well off have just as much opportunity to prepare as the wealthy.

[This post also appeared on the Leicester Exchanges debate site in March 2011]

[i] Goodier, C and Pan, W (2010) The Future of UK Housebuilding. RICS Research Report, available at http://www.rics.org/ukhousebuilding

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