What Positive Adaptation Looks Like
by Morgan Phillips
September 30, 2019
This interview between Dr. Morgan Phillips, the co-director of The Glacier Trust (TGT), and Meleah Moore, a volunteer for TGT, was edited and condensed by frank news.
Meleah: Hey Morgan. Can you introduce yourself and give us a run-down of your work with The Glacier Trust?
M: I am the Co-Director of the Glacier Trust, a small UK NGO based in London. We exist to enable climate change adaptation in Nepal, more specifically in the foothills of the Himalaya. And as well as enabling climate change adaptation we are increasingly trying to advocate for adaptation both in Nepal, and in the UK, and trying to get it up the agenda a little bit more. We know that people are adapting anyway, so The Glacier Trust focuses on encouraging adapting in mindful ways. And not causing more harm than good in the ways they are coping with climate change.
Meleah: Can you explain more of what you meant when you say that adaptation can be more harmful than good?
M: We are getting to the stage where people are consciously and unconsciously adapting to climate change. Sometimes it's really incremental and small adjustments to the way people live. There is always a danger that they’ll adapt in kind of a self-interested way, that they might end up doing things which are good for them, but have a knock-on impact on other people.
We need to include social justice, and have a mindfulness in the way that we’re adapting.
Meleah: Do you have an example of unmindful adaption?
M: In London in the summer we now get prolonged periods of very hot weather, and so the sale of air conditioning units and desk fans is going up, as people try to keep cool. That’s an example of a maladaptation. In running these appliances they are using more electricity, which is coming from fossil fuels, which is causing more climate change. We’re in danger of that happening on a mass scale if people aren’t aware of how they are adapting.
Meleah: So working against nature instead of with it. Is there an example you can think of specifically in an agricultural sense that would be maladaptation?
Yes, climate change makes it harder to farm, so one way to cope would be to say, well, let’s cut some corners. Examples would be farmers using inorganic farming methods or pursuing a high yield through using inorganic pesticides, chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Meleah: Can you talk more about the specific agriculture-based adaptation methods that The Glacier Trust is supporting in Nepal?
There are lots of intersections going on in terms of the development agenda and poverty eradication - if people improve their livelihoods they become more resilient to climate change.
Our work enables agroforestry, which is working with farmers to grow different tree species in a layer-farming method that increases agricultural productivity. Coffee production, which is becoming more popular in Nepal, is a perfect example. Without a shade tree, like banana or moringa, there is a danger that the sun will be too direct or pests will have more access. So, in farmers learning these techniques, the coffee has a better chance of surviving.
Meleah: Coffee is largely grown in regions that are extremely climate vulnerable. Have you noticed any changes in the industry more globally?
Climate change is having an effect on coffee plantations all around the world, especially in zones of lower altitude where the heat of the sun is lasting longer or the monsoon pattern is changing. It’s also having an effect because of insect pests coming to destroy the crop. The crops are not as resilient as they once were.
However, at the same time, as more people enter the middle classes and have the means to start buying coffee, the demand for coffee is increasing. We’re seeing new areas like Nepal, where they can grow at high altitudes, beginning to fill the gap in the supply. In Nepal, only around 5% of the land which could be growing coffee, is growing coffee. So there is a huge potential to grow a lot of it.
Meleah: We’ve talked before about the true cost of a cup of coffee, but in places like America and the UK its still pretty cheap. I just bought a cup for $2.50 this morning. There is a whole chain of events, from picking, processing, transporting, roasting… that lead up to getting coffee into your cup. Couple that with climate change and shifting regions of production. Is there enough getting back to the farmers? Is it a sustainable way to earn a living?
M: Yea, it’s tricky. I mean one issue is that value is added to the coffee once it leaves the country of origin. The people who grow it don’t tend to make the big profit margins on it, that tends to happen once it’s been roasted, packaged and marketed. The knock-on effect is the “if” - if coffee farmers aren’t getting a good price for their coffee, they will just stop growing it. It won’t be valuable to them. We’ve seen in Nepal that there are coffee plants but no one is looking after them, or tending to them, or picking the coffee beans, because they’ve never seen a way to make money from it.
What we’ve been doing is to try to get the coffee roasted in Nepal so that the money from roasting stays in the country. We’d like to be able to increase that even further up the chain, so the farmers themselves are able to roast the coffee.
The exciting thing with coffee is that there are so many benefits. In a layer farming method, you’re also growing fruit and vegetables, which improve local diets and can be sold in local markets. So it has a triple-win effect. At a very local level the small areas in which the coffee is grown are noticeably cooler, and helps people deal with the heat. It’s a mitigation effect as well.
Meleah: What are the transfer ideas or methods from Nepal and from crop sharing that could work in countries like the UK or US, were it’s not necessarily a development effort but it does need to happen?
Adaptation would be descaling from these massive factory farms, which have enormous machinery, fertilizers, all that stuff. We need to peel that back if we’re going to be working more in harmony with the land. Which would be going, I don’t want to say back, but in the direction of what we see in Nepal. More hands on and more people working the land.
The interesting thing, which I’m exploring at the minute, it’s that it can be less about the farmers adapting to climate change, and more about them adapting to people's concern for the climate. I read the other day that some farmers started growing chickpeas in the UK for the first time. That’s a response to the increased demand for hummus as more people eat plant-based diets. It’s literally that. It’s an indirect adaptation to climate change, because they’re adapting to consumer preferences changing. Consumer preferences are changing because of our knowledge of climate change.
Meleah: I think that’s really interesting.
M: I think that is becoming a bigger, faster driver of change.
But we have to ask the question - are they growing those chickpeas in environmentally sensitive ways? Or are they just growing them as cheaply and efficiently as they can to service the demand?
M: I mean we see more vegan and plant-based options everywhere… Do you have Impossible burgers yet?.
Yeah, that’s happening for sure. There are vegan options everywhere and more importantly, the brands are talking about them, they’re advertising the fact they’ve got them. They’re not embarrassed about them. It’s being pushed and it must be having an effect on what farmers are doing. They will meet that demand.
You hear different stories on avocado sales and how that’s affecting farmers of the world who are growing avocados and cutting down a load of forest to get it done. This is again about having mindfulness in adaptation.
It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth for people to change their habits for the sake of climate and then be fed by people who aren’t taking climate into consideration.
It’s a bit of a ...
Meleah: A double-edged sword
M: Yea there’s a disconnect there. It could all be a lot less harmful if they started to do things like the layer farming and agroforestry methods and not doing monocultures and so on.
Meleah: I think it’s really interesting to talk about adaptation in this everyday sense. I want to unpack the difference between adaptation and mitigation. What are your views on what adaptation can achieve and what kind of balance do we need between adaptation and mitigation?
M: That’s a nice small question (laughs).
I think about this a lot. I came into this job three years ago, not knowing very much about adaptation. I came from an environmental NGO perspective, and in the environmental sector it seemed to me that adaptation was almost a dirty word.
People didn’t want to talk about adaptation, like it meant some sort of admission that we’re not going to reverse climate change. It felt like a taboo subject because in talking about adaptation, you’re kind of admitting defeat. I think we’re in the process now of letting go of that point of view.
We’re acknowledging that, with the best intentions, the Paris agreement or anything else isn’t going to prevent 2 degrees of warming and that change is locked in. Adaptation is going to happen anyway. So if we’re not talking about, we have no control over how it’s going to happen. It could lead to dangerous outcomes for marginalized people who don’t have a strong enough voice to be able to make sure they’re not being screwed over by people's adaptation policies.
A project like agroforestry is adaption, but mitigation at the same time. Because if you plant more trees it’s going to absorb Co2 and help mitigate climate change, while also adapting to it. So they’re not separate in that sense - there are overlaps. It’s good to be trying to do both within a project.
Meleah: So breaking down some boundaries of solutions thinking.
Yeah, if you try to keep the strategies separate and reinforce two camps it’s dangerous.
You can see that happening in response to the Jonathan Franzen article in the New Yorker last week. Lots of people from the mitigation ‘camp’ really attacked the article, and it deserved attacking in some ways because there was a lot of sensationalism in it, but at the same time Franzen was realistically pointing out, in ways that David Wallace Wells or Jem Bendell or Extinction Rebellion in the UK have been pointing out, that the truth is we are in a much more perilous situation than the media commonly tells us.
Franzen was adding to that job of saying, things are really bad, worse than you think they are, and we’re going to have to adapt to them. But people don’t like to hear that. So you’ve ended up with this kind of divide happening. And that divide is really dangerous because we should be looking for overlaps.
Meleah: I like the overlap idea, the visual of that.
M: Yeah, I mean, it has historically been the case that we think of an environmental movement on one side and an international development movement on the other, and the international development movement has always been promoting adaptation as part of poverty eradication and equality work.
And the environmentalists have always been on the other side, saying you know, it's all about mitigation. Really they’ve got to meet in the middle and see where the overlaps are. They should be working together.
Meleah: I guess mitigation gets to a global level, the carbon-capture and geoengineering and so on, but adaptation seems a lot more localized, or individualized even.
M: The difficulty is we need huge amounts of mitigation as well. Every 0.1 of a degree of warming we can prevent, the better. But the reality is there is only a limited budget for spending on climate change and the balance of the money is still heavily weighted towards mitigation, grant funding and climate finance. You can make more money off of mitigation projects. And so the danger is a load of money is put out for mitigation in the hope that it prevents the need to adapt, but the reality is that people need to adapt already.
A lot of the technologies that are being invested in, large scale carbon storage and negative emissions technologies - we don’t know if they’re going to succeed anyway. So it’s a gamble to spend it all there. We need to spend more on both, that’s the reality of it.
Meleah: That’s very true.
M: Overall for me there’s still a need to shout from the rooftops about adaptation because it is in the shadow of mitigation. Still. Although, it’s starting to emerge. I think during the next big UN COP adaptation is going to be far higher up the agenda than it was previously. Sometimes I see adaptation related stories on the news, on the mainstream news - which it never was before. Really, it’s time. The environments that we care about are being attacked by climate change, the environment is attacking itself.
Meleh: Well that’s a really positive note to end on.
M: No, I do have hope! I do have hope. I think that I've found hope by seeing adaptation projects work. Because if we just leave communities to cope on their own, without any investment, then there will be social collapse. But there are adaptation strategies we can implement.
Meleah : You’re work in Nepal is completely that. It's so cool to see a community given the tools and resources to thrive and change their situation.
M: Yea, it’s really inspiring. That’s where I find hope - there are ways to cope.