No, humans have not always adapted

“Humans have always adapted. This argument is very frequently used, especially by climate delayers : they admit that climate change is a problem, but that it is not so serious because “humans have always adapted“.

Responding to this argument is not so simple, and will land you in Brandolini’s law. Indeed, humanity has never been extinct, and climate change will not threaten the survival of the species, at least not by the end of the century. Even with a climate that warms up by 5°C, there may still be some humans playing online with 16G on their Iphone 42. On the other hand, some people (knowingly?) forget to mention that natural climate variability has, in the past, caused major upheavals for human societies, with very many victims. A detail.

So we need to ask the right questions. While we cannot talk about the disappearance of humanity, climate change is transforming and will profoundly transform our world. What will the consequences be, and for whom? In what order of magnitude? Will all countries have the means to adapt quickly enough to cope with it? Why are we lagging behind in our adaptation policies, including in France?

We answer this question with the help of Magali Reghezza, geographer and member of the High Council for the Climate (HCC).

Foreword: What is adaptation?

For the IPCC, “adaptation is a process of adjustment to current or expected changes in climate and their consequences. Although climate change is a global problem, its impacts are felt differently around the world. The measures taken are often dictated by the local context, so that people adapt differently in different regions. Further increases in global temperature from 1°C today to 1.5°C or more above pre-industrial levels would increase the need for adaptation. Stabilising warming at 1.5°C would require less adaptation effort than at 2°C. Despite many successes, progress is incipient in many regions and unevenly distributed around the world.

Adaptation is thus the means by which societies and individuals are resilient, i.e. are able to cope with a disturbance and/or recover from a shock. Fair” adaptation must enable all populations to preserve their means of subsistence, without seeing their living conditions deteriorate, whether we think in terms of income, health, life expectancy, etc.

Features of a totally brand new adaptation

Successful adaptation to current and future anthropogenic climate change requires a number of conditions, which may already contradict the idea that it will be achieved because it has always been achieved:

  • Given the speed and scale of the changes, technical solutions, assuming the technologies are mastered, will only be effective if a certain level of warming is not exceeded. Adapting if the sea level rises by only one metre is possible, provided that the financial and technological resources are available (but this is still a detail). If you reach 2 or even 3 metres, it is already much more complicated, if not impossible.
  • Adaptive capacities will vary greatly from one individual to another, from one company to another, from one social group to another, and the implementation of climate risk reduction measures depends largely on local and national contexts (we will come back to this).
  • Successful adaptation can be ‘facilitated by national and sub-national action, as central governments play an important role in coordination, planning, priority setting, resource allocation and assistance‘. Anticipation is essential, despite the uncertainties, but it is clearly not happening, even in the richest and most technologically advanced countries.
  • In too many parts of the world, thinking about adaptation has barely begun. The IPCC questions the ability of the most vulnerable populations to cope with any additional warming to 1.2°C. This is problematic, as we are expected to exceed +1.5°C in the 2030+ decade.

Finally, adaptation requires not only broad support in the form of technological and financial aid (States, local authorities, companies, etc.), but also support for behavioural changes for all stakeholders (not just citizens). It will not be enough to turn on the air conditioning or desalinate sea water if the world warms up a few more degrees. It is therefore essential to dispel the idea that adaptation is easy and without breakage.

Rethink adaptation

Historically, adaptation has been largely local, through reactive adjustments and learning as communities learn from catastrophic events and mistakes. While the development of science and technology has certainly made it possible to provide better protection, hydro-climatic extremes have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths over the centuries, either directly or through famine, famine, economic and political unrest. Transforming societies and habitats, changing practices, developing technical solutions took centuries!

Anthropogenic climate change is unique, both in its speed and its magnitude. Humans have never had to adapt to such upheaval. This is why saying “man has always adapted” is false, or at least misleading. It may have adapted, but at what cost?

Why talk about adaptation when we are talking about human societies?

Adaptation is a scientific concept used since the 19th century to understand the relationship between living beings and their environment. Originating in biology, where adaptation is central to the theory of evolution, the term was quickly adopted to study the relationship of human beings to their environment. Adaptation is used to criticise the influence of the environment on humans, who, unlike other species, have a freedom of choice and a capacity to learn, which allows them to transform natural environments in a way that no other animal has ever done. The rejection of “mesological determinism”, i.e. the fact that an individual is determined by his or her natural environment, fuels the reflections of the social sciences, particularly geography, on the status and role of human societies vis-à-vis ecosystems. These debates are updated today in the notion of the Anthropocene.

To argue that humans are not entirely subject to the influence of their natural environment is to recognise that individuals and social groups are capable of both changing and modifying their environment to optimise resources and protect themselves from threats. Without denying the biological evolution of the species over thousands of years, the social sciences focus on what enables humans to inhabit environments a priori hostile (deserts, high mountains, dense forests, sub-polar areas, etc.) This explains why two societies that live in similar climatic, hydrological and topographical conditions can be radically different.

Adaptation thus accounts for the co-evolution between human societies and their environment. Thinking in terms of adaptation makes it possible to restore the capacity for individual and collective action and to reject the catastrophism that legitimises fatalism and wait-and-see behaviour. But it also requires putting into perspective the social, political and environmental conditions that make this action possible, and taking a good look at the temporalities over which it unfolds and the price to pay.

What is known about the adaptation of past societies

The study of past societies shows that adaptation is a long, irregular process of leaps forward and backward. The work of archaeologists and historians proves that the transitions on which adaptation is based take place over several decades, if not centuries. For example, landscapes reveal, to those who know how to read them, the long work of transforming environments: whether you are in the Netherlands, in Flanders or on the Atlantic coasts, you can see the dykes, the drainage works, the floodgates. The design of the polders and canals, which became wider and more regular, reflects the slow acquisition of drainage and flood protection techniques. It took centuries and dozens of floods for pumps to replace mills. The archives of the local lords tell us that the fight against the sea and the control of water was carried out at the cost of the serfs’ labour.

Adaptation required social transformations: in Flanders, for example, the wateringues associations, in charge of maintaining the watergangs (drainage works), date back to the 12th century and have left their name in the toponymy. Yet, even in recent times, deadly events have reminded us of the limits of this centuries-old adaptation. In 1953, a storm in the North Sea caused almost 1800 casualties in the Netherlands alone. It took almost 40 years for the Delta Plan, which was supposed to protect the country, to be completed, and we already have to think about raising the dikes to protect the Dutch polders from rising sea levels.

The diffusion of social and technological innovations is therefore slow and heterogeneous. It excludes territories, social groups and individuals. If it is not anticipated and supported, it has a human, economic and social cost that can be very high. So yes, humanity has been able to adapt to everything, but at the cost of millions of human lives lost or sacrificed, and countless material losses.

A successful adaptation in the past is no guarantee of a successful adaptation in the future

The ongoing climate change so rapid that natural climate variability alone could not be the cause. There is no similar example in human history. But historical examples show the weakness of the “people have always adapted” argument. In 1815, the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora ejected huge amounts of ash, dust and sulphurous gases into the atmosphere. Temperatures dropped sharply across the globe and 1816 was dubbed the ‘year without a summer’. Although the winter had been mild in the northern hemisphere, frost destroyed the crops in May.

Then came the snowstorms in June, heavy rain and overcast skies with little light. Floods increased, crops were destroyed, famine set in, with its share of revolts, looting and unrest. In China, rice harvests were devastated and again, famine set in and epidemics raged. Thousands were forced into exile and many perished on the journey. Humanity has not disappeared, but the deaths have been counted in the thousands, including among the richest, even if there is a high excess of deaths among the poorest and the most physically fragile, children and the elderly.

Unlike the men and women of that time, we have the means to anticipate and prepare for disaster. But the longer we wait, the more we reduce our freedom of choice, our ability to offset the costs of transition and to protect the weak. The “year without summer” shows that not all human beings can adapt to everything and that the more rapid, sudden and intense the change, the less possible it is to respond.

Multiple warnings of only +1.2°C global warming

The problem is that the climate is changing and changing faster than expected. We are beating record after record of temperatures in the four corners of the world, and it is only 2021. Droughts, heatwaves, floods… warnings about the reduction of biodiversity are multiplying, the human and financial cost of disasters is increasing, with its trail of individual tragedies. The climate is changing and we know that its effects will only get worse. Parts of the world will probably become uninhabitable – unless measures are taken at exorbitant human, financial and environmental cost, effectively excluding the majority.

Recent events should make us reflect on the phrase ‘man has always adapted‘. In less than two weeks, Canada, a rich industrialised country, experienced a record heat of 49.60°C, with the village of Lytton in British Columbia almost 90% destroyed by fire. More than 400 people died during this heat wave (more on this later). All this, at only +1.2°C of global warming.

Village of Lytton on fire, June 2021. Credit : Reuters

As we explained in our article on heatwaves, we cannot normally attribute an extreme weather event to climate change. However, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) highlights 3 very important points:

  • “rapid climate warming is taking us into uncharted territory, with significant consequences for health, well-being and livelihoods.”
  • “Adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed to prepare societies for a very different future. Adaptation measures need to be much more ambitious and take into account the increased risk of heat waves worldwide.”
  • Although extreme heat affects everyone, some people are even more vulnerable, including the elderly, young children, people with medical conditions, socially isolated individuals, the homeless, individuals without air conditioning, and (outdoor) workers (Singh et al., 2019).

This last point is fundamental.

Even in developed countries, a changing climate kills

The heat wave in Canada should serve as a warning for the coming decades that even in rich, technologically advanced countries, climate extremes kill. The deaths in British Columbia are an example of climate injustice.

While it is known that some individuals are physically more vulnerable to heat waves, due to their age or health status, the deaths affect the most disadvantaged social categories, those who cannot afford to leave the city or to rush to air-conditioned hotels that are fully booked for a week. In addition, in this region, which does not experience these extreme temperatures, housing, transport and workplaces were not adapted to high temperatures and the number of air-conditioned spaces was very low. Most of the dead are people who did not have the physical, financial, family or social resources to cope with the extreme temperatures.

The scientific literature on disasters has shown, since the 1960s, that there is a close correlation between inequalities related to age, gender, income, education, health, and coping capacities, whether one looks at the individual or the group level, whether one looks at the local, national or global level. Without ambitious, proactive and anticipatory policies, some will have the privilege of being able to adapt, but how many will be able to say the same?

Beyond the loss of life, we also recall that the fauna and flora will not have time to adapt to such conditions in such a short time. Indeed, even in Bill Gates’ wildest dreams, plants and animals do not have air conditioning. The heat wave is said to have killed 1 billion marine animals. This is why the IPCC and IPBES state that climate and biodiversity are inseparable, and that mitigation and adaptation must form a whole. And although we have little regard for other living species, our survival and well-being depends on them.

Adaptation for everyone ?

As we have seen, at the local level, there are wide disparities in terms of possible ‘adaptation’ to climate hazards. But this is also true on a national, and especially international, scale.

In its SR15 report, the IPCC explains the consequences of a global warming of +1.5°C and what will happen if it exceeds this symbolic temperature:

Difference between +1.5°C and +2°C. SR15
Source : SR15

Some regions of the world will be more affected than others by droughts, by the sea level rise, heatwaves, cyclones, and the acidification of the oceans which, with the increase in the concentration of CO2, endangers the coral reefs, which could completely disappear as of a warming of +2°C.

A concrete example is sea level rise. About 700 million people now live in low-lying coastal areas and are vulnerable to sea-level rise and coastal storms. This number could reach one billion by 2050. Island nations like the Maldives, Seychelles, Kiribati and others could be completely wiped out by rising seas and storms. Even a rise of only one metre, probably unavoidable today, will displace millions of people in Florida and along the Gulf Coast. The damage will be in the billions, as will the material and human losses.

Moreover, sea level rise is not uniform and varies greatly according to location and coastline shape. The higher the exposure and vulnerability, the greater the impact. For example, we explained the consequences for the Fiji Islands: while they are among the most sober inhabitants of the planet, they will be hit hard by the excesses of other countries, and it is very unlikely that the entire population will have 1) desire to be relocated 2) the opportunity to do so. Money will not ‘compensate’ for excesses, nor will it protect everything, let alone repair it. All the more so as this money is struggling to arrive through the Green Climate Fund, although this was foreseen in the Paris Agreement.

Who claims that “man has always adapted“?

Having debunked the claim that “humans have always adapted” and shown that adaptation to current and future climate change requires rapid action and political will and leadership, it is interesting to understand who is using this fallacious idea.

Indeed, despite the warnings of the scientific community, the many reports of various international organisations such as the IPCC, IPBES, WWA, etc., the refrain is still used and the music persists in public opinion. If it does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, then it has a dual purpose: political and economic.

First of all, the economic interest. We recalled in a text on the said punitive ecology this:”“The problem is not whether humanity will adapt, but what efforts will be required and who will pay. Indeed, some companies (and individuals) have more economic interest in perpetuating the Business as Usual, i.e., that nothing changes. There are certainly co-benefits for many sectors in adopting proactive adaptation, but all economic actors would have to undergo a radical change of model to do so. In the same way, some elected officials will prefer to invest in other areas, either because they have to manage short-term social and economic emergencies, or out of pure electoral interest. Investing in medium/long-term adaptation is ungrateful since it will be those who follow who will reap the benefits of the actions taken by their predecessors.

Then comes the political interest. In the same way, with the same short-termist logic and the pursuit of Business as Usual, it is obvious that saying “man has always adapted” has a reassuring, reassuring side, thus avoiding the French from worrying too much, because it is true that in the end, climate change is not really a problem! Like the term “punitive ecology“, it is again being used by right-wing and far-right politicians, liberals, and people who think that we will find technical solutions no matter what. So all we have to do is save time, fix what can be fixed. There is no trace of a political figure on the left saying “the man has always adapted” in the press or on a TV set, except to respond to a polemic. The same is true for scientists specialising in climate issues.

The technical solution

The technical solution is “obvious” for dealing with current and future climate hazards. We explained that it was not, and that in addition to being reactive and palliative, this technical adaptation took decades, even centuries. At the rate the Earth is warming, we don’t have centuries to prevent hundreds of millions of people from being unable to cope with climate impacts.

Moreover, this technical solution is one of the 12 discourses of climate inaction: “no real need to change, we’ll find a technical solution”. This is what David Pujadas said with a smile on his set last June: “Still, with the technological means we have today, we have plenty to do, no! We have also had our say:

Source :

What Louis de Raguenel forgets to mention is that part of humanity disappeared during these ice ages. Once again, a detail!

And it is very important to remember that just because we have the technical solution does not mean it will be implemented. This requires financial, human and technological resources, which are often lacking, especially in the most at-risk territories (e.g. Madagascar and the famine, or the Green Climate Fund which has never been up to the task). Even so, this technical solution must be accepted by the political and economic players and the population. Vaccination, for example, can eradicate certain diseases, but without the involvement of governments, companies and citizens, this technical solution is impossible.

The last word

Adaptation is important to reduce the negative impacts of climate change, but will never be sufficient to fully prevent its consequences. On the other hand, the higher the global temperature rises, the more serious the consequences will be. Adaptation is not an excuse to stop mitigation efforts. On the contrary. The more time passes, the greater the risk of irreversible thresholds being exceeded (at least on a human scale).

The loss of coral reefs, the massive loss of habitat for terrestrial species, the destruction of ecosystems caused by extreme heat, droughts or fires are reducing coastal livelihoods in islands and low-lying coasts. In the very short term, it is the carbon sinks that will be threatened, further jeopardising the achievement of carbon neutrality and the possibility of keeping climate change within the 2 degree limit.

In mitigation, every half degree counts. Every year that adaptation is delayed puts the survival and well-being of more and more people at risk.

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