Source: YouTube
Date: 25/01/2012
EventThe Guardian's John Vidal speaks about adapting to climate change
Attribution: ODI (Overseas Development Institute)

  • Dr Tom Mitchell: Head of Climate Change, Environment and Forests Programme, ODI
  • John Vidal: Environment Editor, The Guardian

Tom Mitchell: Let me move on quickly and pass on to John Vidal, the Environment Editor of the Guardian for nearly 20 years - in that time has reported on climate change and development from about a hundred countries, so certainly well qualified to provide perspectives on the social, physical effects of climate change and development. John, over to you.
John Vidal: Thank you very much. I have to say thank you very much for inviting me. It's rare to be able to talk to such people, who really, sort of - changing things, and so thank you very much, ODI - I don't know... I'm not very good at adapting, myself. I've got a pen - that's about as far as I've got. So there'll be no visuals whatever. I have been lucky, and I've been able to - partly through the ACCRA - or the ACCRA bunch [different pronunciation], as I prefer to call you - get to see quite a lot of projects around the world - Peru, Nepal... DFID's taken me - well, they haven't taken me, we've paid for ourselves, er [laughter] - although if anyone wants to invite me - er, Egypt, Sudan, wherever, wherever, wherever. 

So there's a lot of this going on. I don't just look at climate change - we look at the whole kinds of other stuff as well - but climate change is one - is the key area now. And wherever you go, communities are talking to us about what they're seeing. And the extraordinary thing is - I mean, just to root the whole thing - the extraordinary thing is that everyone's coming up with the same stories. It's not as if the people of Sudan are saying something different to the people of Uganda, the people of South Africa or Ecuador or Peru or wherever. It's the same manifestations of these phenomena are taking place. So - which has totally convinced me, I'm a natural-born sceptic - that there's something deeply changing about what is happening.

The interesting thing is, people are changing in different ways - different speeds, different, um, er - in different manners. But I want to look at the areas which we haven't looked at very much, which is the governmental level. Some - basically, governments set the overall picture. And if you get a government which really gets or understands climate change - and the potential for it to completely wreck an economy or wreck a country, socially or demographically, or whatever, over the next 35 years - you're going to get a set of policies which are going to make that - those populations much more resilient, much more able to adapt. 

And so that's one thing. Another thing which occurs to me is that the most ecologically sound systems, of farming or land management or - I don't know - fishing or wherever, tend to produce the most resilient people and the communities who can best resist any changes which do happen. So, um, for instance, in Nepal there was an extraordinary tree-planting project, which is based on community tree-planting. Absolutely fantastic stuff. And I would say, over the next 20 or 30 years, that programme of tree-planting - which wasn't a "climate change" thing, just a tree-planting thing - will probably have - will probably protect and enable resilience in those communities, far far more than any "climate change" thing. What they were very cleverly doing - this was actually DFID, I should say - DFID and others and Oxfam and whoever - were encouraging tree-planting, but they were calling it a climate change programme. I mean, it wasn't actually, it was a tree-planting programme, they just changed the name. 

Basically, if you have a very ecologically sound way of developing, you will probably get much more resilient communities. So that's the one thing. And equally, if you have a very, sort of, ecologically unsound, you will have very vulnerable communities. And I've seen that - terrifying things going on in Ethiopia and elsewhere, with these vast, great, sort of, mechanised farming schemes, which are just absolutely, basically designed to rip communities apart and provide no protection or adaptation ability. And, in fact, take away, take away resilience from communities. And so, again, um, Kenya - I notice that Kenya is planting seven billion trees over the next 20 years or 30 years, to protect its water resources. And that's fantastic news, I mean that really, really is good news. 

Let's start from that top thing, come down. When you get to individual communities, you seem to have some which are getting very good, if you like, predicting or - yeah, it's a - are they adapting to things which they know are going to happen, so they've had an event, or something like that, and they want to know when it's going to happen, in Peru and Ecuador and wherever, they had terrible drought problems. I've seen Oxfam and others installing or helping with weather forecasting, with predicting frosts and things like that. Very, very simple things, which the community can do. People preparing for droughts, so that they are digging small reservoirs for themselves or their families or their communities, or whatever. Very, very simple things. It's all based on education - if you educate people that this is how you can, you know, adapt and become resilient, then they will do it. I mean, this is - given the resources. 

The other thing which I've seen working fantastically well - demonstration plots, and whatever. Again, I think it was in Peru, with the dam-building and whatever. I mean, a tremendous - if one family is given the resources to adapt his or her farm, and then others just watch how that filters down through the community. And that's all that needs to happen - if one farmer can be seen, because most farmers, most communities are fantastically conservative, and they watch very carefully to see what's working for one person, is it working for - could it work for me, or whatever, compare and contrast, and whatever. If they see it working for old Jim down the road, or Dai, they're more likely to do it themselves, so I think - where I've seen things working very well is where there has been very good demonstration, um, projects. 

Another thing I've seen is the forecasting stuff, which is really interesting, people understand what's - what may be coming down the road. The best [laughs] – the best – adaptive one I ever saw was in Cuba, where they nicked Al Gore’s film – what was it called?… um…

Female voice: An Inconvenient Truth.

John Vidal: Yeah… Yeah. And they just put it on the television. You know, they didn’t pay Al Gore, or anything like that. And they didn’t just do it once, they did it seven days in a row. And then they did it the next week, and they did it the next week. And they didn’t pay, they just did it, put it on the thing – "This is what is happening", "This is climate change". And let people understand for themselves, that unless they changed, or unless Cuba was prepared to change, then you would have more hurricanes, more, er, tropical storms, more droughts, whatever, whatever, whatever. And that just seemed to me a sort of fantastically good way of adapting a country to – was basically just taking the best information, providing people with the best information there is. That was very good. 

Um, er, a lot of stuff is reactive, as. Simon, you were saying. So it's only in the aftermath of a landslide or a landslip, where people begin to understand what is happening. So it's a very good way of, er... I mean, that which doesn't kill you, if you like, makes you stronger. And I've seen a lot of stuff in Brazil and elsewhere, where people are no longer building in such mad places, on slopes, which are going to... It comes back to planning systems and governments and beginning to - to take control of how people live and where people live. These are absolutely fundamentals, and...

So, I suppose I want to say - I'll keep it very, very short. Some seem to be completely batty, some of the adaptive things - in Bangladesh, where they were planting crops on floating little islands of grass and whatever - they'd provide enough food for half a chicken for half a day, I should think. Maybe on a vast scale... I think some of the ideas are - maybe we should try all kinds of different ways. But I think the key is to - is to - to come back to what Simon was saying - just to good development - good commonsense development, good ecological development is usually the best form of resilience. 

And so one of the things I was going to say - I like the way science is now working with forecasters in - with traditional forecasters in some African countries. And they're finding that, actually the traditional forecasters, which is based on good observational stuff - when to plant, how to - you know - are now being taken much more seriously by the scientists, because I think this is key, is that scientists don't become some separate clique, some sort of religious affair which hands down its prognostications but actually works with the people who have traditionally shown people what is happening and how to adapt to it. 

So, anyway, I'll leave it like that, but the message is absolutely - that which works ecologically is almost certain to work, to produce communities and countries which are most resilient to shocks and changes, the like of which we're going to see. So, I'll leave it there.

Tom Mitchell: Thank you very much. [Applause].