For most of us, preparing for the future means having a retirement fund and health coverage, choosing our preferred tree change or sea change option and keeping on the good side of the relatives who will eventually pick out our nursing home. For the most part we don’t want to think about these things at all, as anyone who has tried to talk this over with their partners has probably found out.
Talking about preparing for a future affected by climate change is even less welcome a topic and many of the same considerations hold true.
We know there will be some big-impact events but not when and where they will happen. The Australian Climate Change Science Program (ACCSP) produces great technical information but not what I need on a personal level. Looking at the Climate Change in Australia website I can get a general idea of the risks I face from higher temperatures and changed rainfall patterns over the coming decades, but not what to actually expect in any given year. How can I reduce the risk? Having a high-set Queenslander house reduces my risks of climate impacts from very hot weather and flooding while I live on the Brisbane flood plain.
On the same level, the National Stroke Foundation shows my changing risk as I age, but not for certain if I will have a stroke. With my family history of diabetes and heart disease, my risk is high. But I also know that by keeping fit and eating light, I can improve my chances.
Preparing for both ageing and for climate change involves managing the risks and deciding what we are willing to change and what we are willing to chance. Mostly we don’t want to think about either one and like to see difficult times as far off in the future.
How much we do not want to think about dealing with impacts from climate change was brought home to me through a series of casual conversations in 2007, where I mentioned newly released climate projections for 2050. I could see people mentally counting in their head and then say “I’ll be dead then!” as a big smile spread across their face.
When this kept happening no matter where I travelled, I came to think that many people would rather be dead than have to face what we expect from climate change.
In the same way, when young people express a horror at the prospect of getting old, they picture the losses in reduced options and opportunities, without appreciating the benefits gained over a lifetime. As old age gets closer our attitudes change along with our expectations. A fit and well off 70-year old can have a very good day, but he is still 70. Someone in 2050 dealing with unpredictable weather patterns, fewer food options and having to learn new job skills will likely have different expectations than we do now and can still have a very good day.
In some ways I think we have a failure of imagination looking at the climate-affected future. We have seen climate change as something to be stopped, that global warming could be avoided if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
Now weather patterns have started to change and emission reductions aim to keep the changes from reaching a dangerous level, even as some climate impacts have become unavoidable. Changes have been set in motion through inertia in the climate system and emissions absorbed in the oceans that will enter the atmosphere over the coming decades.
The small and large choices we make each year will shape how prepared we are to meet new challenges. Like ageing, the key to adapting to climate change is to act now to increase our capacity to enjoy the benefits and opportunities, and decrease our vulnerability to the negative impacts.
When I picture myself at 70 I have an image of my parents and grandparents at that age but with the benefits of better nutrition and medical care. What is more difficult is picturing the world around me. The very tricky thing about adapting to climate change is knowing what to expect, expressed in the standard disclaimer for financial products, “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results”. That has not stopped us investing for our retirement but it will be even more important as we prepare for climate change.