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What history can teach us about climate adaptation

A woman in India holding a handful of crops. climate adaptation

Indigenous communities in India have used climate adaptation practices for millennia Image: cgiarclimate/Flickr

Joe Wegener
Project Leader, Boston Consulting Group
Chitresh Saraswat
Hoffmann Fellow, Innovation in Climate Adaptation, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • Innovation is required if we are to protect the vulnerable today from the impacts of climate change and ensure the safe and just transition of tomorrow.
  • The story of human adaptation to the natural environment is as old as humans themselves with innovation playing a crucial role.
  • What can historic climate adaptation innovations and results teach us about modern-day adaptation?

The climate crisis demands adaptation – the process of adjusting ecological, social and economic systems to deal with the effects and impacts of climate change. In 2023 wildfires to hurricanes have scorched and soaked the planet leaving little doubt that these impacts have arrived.

The conversation around climate adaptation has moved up the agenda in recent years. Like much else in 2023, these conversations often gravitate toward innovation. Can we innovate our way out of the climate crisis? There is no "silver bullet' and, more to the point, there is no substitute for deep and swift mitigation – but the impacts of climate change are worsening, breaking records we don’t want to break. Leaders have no choice but to adapt.

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Innovation in technology, business, and governance is required if we are to protect the vulnerable today and ensure the safe and just transition of tomorrow. To realize this potential, we need to recognize that adaptation is not a new concept but has a deep history with many lessons to share.

The “historical first movers”

The story of human adaptation to the natural environment is as old as humans themselves. The role of innovation in that story is just as old – maybe older. Rudimentary tools, fashioned from the earth and used to manipulate it, were central to early human development. For example, this first-of-its-kind toolkit helped humans adapt to the harsh environmental conditions of the Early Stone Age.

While rudimentary tools may be obsolete, there are many historical examples of adaptive innovation that are germane to the climate crisis. “Historical first movers”, as we will call them, hit upon innovations that were valuable in their own time – and continue to hold value today.

In present-day Spain, for example, farmers and researchers are excavating acequias, a network of irrigation canals built by the Moors during the Middle Ages. For centuries, the network distributed water from the Alpujarra Mountains across Andalusia, one of Europe’s driest regions. Today, the canals are being revived as critical irrigation channels, helping Spain’s farmers adapt to hotter and drier growing seasons.

Burning in the Top End is carried out for a variety of reasons: Management of conservation areas; property protection; improving pasture for cattle production; land management by Aboriginal traditional owners; and protection of fire-sensitive vegetation, such as monsoon rainforest.
Indigenous communities in Australia use traditional knowledge (the “cool burning” process) to lessen bushfires in the dry season. Image: CSIRO

Across an even wider sweep of history, Indigenous communities have continuously adapted to environmental conditions. In many cases, this has involved the innovation of new tools and approaches. The Miriwoong community in Australia uses traditional knowledge (the “cool burning” process) to lessen bushfires in the dry season.

To take another example from Indigenous practice, certain Indian communities (including Dokpas and Lanchenpas) have adapted to drought for millennia. As part of this adaptation journey, they discovered how to cultivate drought-resistant crops, such as pumpkins, corn and cabbages, reducing the community’s overall water intake and ensuring resilient yields.

Adaptation is not a new concept. It is only recently that adaptation has been formalized into a set of practices dealing with the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The imperative may be new, but the ideas are old. “Historical first movers” delivered innovations that have withstood centuries of change and can teach us how to develop adaptation practices that are localized, effective and long-lasting.

The Industrial Revolution and its discontents

Adaptation looks different at different points in time. Moreover, the role of innovation in those histories is fluid. Today’s model of innovation – focused on machines and scale – traces its lineage to the Industrial Revolution. Not coincidentally, this period is also the cradle of our current climate crisis.

The innovations of the Industrial Revolution were many: from new materials to energy sources to machines. These innovations fundamentally changed European economies; they changed demographics too. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a “population revolution”. Europe’s population doubled in the 18th century and again in the 19th. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the adaptation imperative was clear: humans were scaling up and systems needed to scale too.

More people required more food – which, from the dawn of time, means more land. But the challenge with land, as Mark Twain quipped, is that “they’re not making it anymore.” Limits on land meant limits on natural fertilizers to produce crops. In the early 20th century, these constraints threatened to unleash famine across Europe.

Severnside fertilizer works. This plant is owned by Terra Nitrogen UK Ltd. and manufactures ammonia and ammonium nitrate
The Haber-Bosch fertilizer production process is regarded as one of the most important innovations of the 20th century. Image: Sharon Loxton/Severnside fertilizer works

In a feat that would alter the course of history, the industrial chemist Fritz Haber devised a process to directly extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to synthetic fertilizer (ammonia). Carl Bosch later brought Haber’s process from the laboratory to industrial scale. The Haber-Bosch process is regarded as one of the most important innovations of the 20th century. Today, nearly half of the world’s 8 billion people depend on food that is fertilized by the process.

Haber-Bosch was an unprecedented feat of adaptation. Humanity had pushed up against the limits of the natural world – and innovated a way around them. But history is never so neat. In addition to feeding Europe, Haber’s innovation was used to kill much of it. An early application of his process was to manufacture gunpowder and explosives, prolonging World War I for two years. Over a longer time-horizon, it became clear that most fertilizer-based nitrogen ends up not in crops but in the air and water around them, producing greenhouse gasses and ecological harm.

The Industrial Revolution is filled with similar tales: innovations that ostensibly overcame the limits of nature, enabling more humans to live more abundantly. The benefits of these technologies are real – so are their costs. The way we choose to understand this legacy, the aspects we emphasize and deemphasize, has profound implications for our current moment.

A future grounded in history

The climate crisis demands adaptation. This adaptation imperative is new and many of the innovations at our disposal are new too. From Artificial Intelligence to earth observation, current innovations have the potential to transform the world’s response to climate change. How can we situate these innovations within a broader, more holistic approach to adaptation? What can history teach us?

  • From the historical first movers: Traditional knowledge is a deep resource for adaptation efforts. Traditional knowledge is centred on a holistic understanding of local ecosystems, vulnerabilities and the human relationship with natural systems.
  • From the Industrial Revolution and its discontents: Modern technologies can be incredibly powerful, but can also have unintended or counter-productive consequences. Intentional design is a critical part of the innovation process.
  • From the historical perspective per se: Certain forms of knowledge can only be accrued over long periods of time (for example, understanding the limits of natural resource extraction). This knowledge should be centred in decision-making processes related to climate change.

We find ourselves in a historically unique moment. The impacts of climate change are increasing in frequency and intensity and will worsen still. Meanwhile, pathbreaking innovations – led by AI and engineered technology but including a broad set of social innovations too – are poised to transform the way we live. It is incumbent upon technologists, policy-makers and citizens to demand that innovation heeds the lessons of history and delivers the solutions of the future.

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