We have to adapt culturally to climate change

Dr Jenny Pickerill, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Leicester:

While the case that climate change is happening and probably irreversible is robust, the political arguments about whether we should do anything about it remain ongoing and unresolved. Many in the minority world (like Britain and the USA) are relying upon technological innovation (like wind power, electric cars and geo-engineering) to save us. Research shows that while many individuals have engaged in making small changes in their lifestyle – such as using recycling bins or cycling a little more – most struggle to make big behavioural changes and feel powerless to take on the changes necessary to really mitigate further carbon emissions. Time is running out to make changes at a big enough scale to mitigate further climatic changes.

Jenny PickerillAdapting is sometimes touted as the easier option. Rather than fundamentally changing everything about how we live today, we could plan for a different future and increase our resilience to any changes ahead. There is, of course, just as much debate as to how we should prepare for these changes as there is about how to mitigate climate change. We should be careful not to be naive about what this actually involves.

For a start, climate change is likely to lead to more extreme climatic events; an unpredictability that is difficult to plan for. Predicting what climatic changes will occur is a difficult science, yet alone interpreting what that means for how we live. Moreover, the magnitude of climate changes depends on whether we can reduce carbon emissions now, keep them stable, or increase them yet further. So if we are to take the adaptation route we have to plan for a variety of different scenarios and we should not abandon all attempts at mitigation. Mitigation has effectively become about trying to reduce the extent to which we need to adapt: it is not an either/or situation.

If we take housing as an example, we can begin to understand the complexity and possibility of making these changes. Housing – both in construction and use – consumes significant amounts of energy and contribute at least 25% of all carbon emissions in Britain[i]. The Met Office predict that temperatures will rise in Britain with increasing heatwaves and fewer frost days. At the same time we will have increased rainfall, more intensive rain showers, sea level rise, coastal surge events and more storms. In other words, we need to be prepared for flooding, storms and heat. If we don’t, then not only will our houses suffer from damage but we will continue to increase our use of energy as more people need air conditioning to keep their houses cool – creating a vicious circle of increased emissions and then greater temperature rises.

Earthship (made from old car tyres) in Brighton, East Sussex, Leicester Exchanges, Jenny Pickerill, University of Leicester

Earthship (made from old car tyres) in Brighton, East Sussex

We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. While there is a huge variety of different types of eco-homes (from those using only local natural materials to the more technological), most have been built to be resilient in today’s climate, with low energy use, or autonomous (generating their own energy, collecting rainwater, dealing with their own waste etc).

However, there are several problems with our attempts thus far; cost, suitability for the future, retrofitting, and, most importantly, cultural understandings of the home. There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper; we are too used to considering cost only at the build stage. But we do need to find better ways of making land, traditionally very expensive in Britain, more available for eco-building.

We are building eco-housing that is suitable for today’s climate and reduces carbon emissions (mitigating climate change) both of which are important, but it is not enough. We need to be designing houses which will be suitable for the future climate of wet, hot, unpredictable weather. Dr Jago Cooper , from the Univerisity of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, has used a archaeological investigation of how pre-Columbian residents in Cuba built their houses to help inform how we might build our houses today.

Crucially, in his case study area there is evidence of abrupt climatic changes (such as flooding) which people dealt with by innovative settlement locations and building stilted wooden houses. These buildings were in the main quite flimsy and temporary lightweight structures built using easily available local materials. But they had substantive structural posts which were resilient to hurricane winds, so when storms happened most of the house was destroyed, but the main structure survived and was easily rebuilt. They had also often collectively stored food in more secure areas.

Clay and grass-roofed residential house, Panya Project, Mae Taeng, Chang Mai, Thailand, Jenny Pickerill, University of Leicecter, Leicester Exchanges

Clay and grass-roofed residential house at Panya Project, Mae Taeng, Chang Mai, Thailand

The lesson here for the modern day is we should look beyond simply being resilient to climatic events to how we are prepared to recover and carry on afterwards. In practical terms this raises questions about whether we should be designing our houses to be more temporary or more durable, training more of us to be able to build our own houses and use more easily available local materials (like we did in the past before the development of bricks). It is also about all of us understanding the subtle balance between the need for insulation and ventilation. We need insulation to reduce draughts and keep us warm but we need ventilation to keep us cool. As the climate changes we are likely to need more ventilation than insulation which could dramatically change the design of our houses.

As soon as we start to talk of building better houses the issue of our existing housing stock is raised. Of course we need to improve these too, but thus far we have focused on quite small changes (such as extra insulation) or adding technology to houses. We need to think more radically about how to adapt these houses to survive climate change, not just reduce carbon emissions.

Finally, adapting housing for climate change involves considerably more than technical changes to construction; it involves huge cultural shifts in how we consider our house and home. For many, a house is foremost about security – both the physical act of having somewhere safe to live and sleep, and financially as an investment – and comfort. There is a deeply felt sense that our homes are our refuge. To change this, by making housing more temporary, using natural materials (which might be perceived as less robust), or relying on manual heating and ventilation systems, requires social changes in how we live.

Straw bale house, The Lama Foundation, Taos, New Mexico, USA, University of Leicester, Leicester Exchanges, Climate Change, Jenny Pickerill, eco house

Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation, Taos, New Mexico, USA

Moreover, it requires us to build ready for changes that many of us have only vaguely understood to be happening; to change behaviour for an unknown future. It is not technology, or really even politics, which is holding us back in making these changes, it is deep rooted cultural and social understandings of how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

As a result, we can understand adapting to climate change is necessary but complex. Even just changing our housing is difficult but entirely possible. To do so we must realise that we need cultural change as much as technological and political change, and that we must ensure that those less well off have just as much opportunity to prepare as the wealthy.

Dr Jenny Pickerill is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester and has been working on a project exploring how to make low cost eco-homes. Her work so far has been documented on her Green Building Blog: http://naturalbuild.wordpress.com/. The eco-homes images in this blog are ©jennypickerill and are not to be reproduced without permission.

[i] Goodier, C and Pan, W (2010) The Future of UK Housebuilding. RICS Research Report


  1. 25thDerivative
    Posted 10/04/2011 at 15:33 | Permalink

    Wake up! It’s a free for all to get as much as you can before the Sh** hits the fan, and it’s traveling towards very fast moving blades as we speak. Arne Nasse, spoke of individuals taking individual responsibility 40 yaers ago, and nobody listened then. Now the North Sea is a soup of plastic particulates, and the fish stock, a free, self regenerating protien resource, are two years old at most, if there are any left. Everybody and his brother polutes the air we all breath as though they have a God given right to do so, evry time they turn the key of their personal internal combustion engine, and low behold the person who suggests limitation of their use. Every job gets over paid, but nobody gets enough, and the unemployed, who cannot get jobs, are blamed. It’s a free for all, for all they can suck for themselves. Human beings suck. There are too many on the face of the planet, nad they breed like they have a God given right to have as many children as they can afford, in their own homes, each of which must own their personal poison emitting combustion engine by age 18! It’s a mess!


  2. 25thDerivative
    Posted 20/03/2011 at 18:08 | Permalink

    Use old aircraft as housing units. Utilise the fuselage to live in and modify the engines to act as generators.


  3. Posted 18/03/2011 at 12:24 | Permalink

    Just a quich reply regarding eco homes. I am a building contractor (home building since the 1970’s), and there are real problems here, but more so to do with ‘mind set’ than building itself. What I find is that although there is a lot of good in ecological/sustainable building, the majority of companies, manafacturing, construction and suppliers, are just jumping on the green bandwagon, without facing the real problem of this mind set; namely – the reduction of everything to abstract systems (money, concepts, etc,) rather than a reduction to natural systems (this planet,nature).
    I can see no real way forward with the present Social, Political and Economic mind sets, and this includes a lot of the ‘Green’ initiatives. The governing principle of humanity over the past 300 (or even the past 3000, read Plato) years has been conception rather than perception. Can we change this mind set before it is too late? It will not be easy but we must keep trying.


  4. Tom Scott
    Posted 12/03/2011 at 14:21 | Permalink

    While I believe there is still some doubt that climate change is caused by or can be prevented by man there is no doubt that at some time in the future there will be an other Ice age. Is there any chance that leaving global warming alone could delay this real catastrophy when roughly two kilometers of ice will cover britain as far south as London. Just a thought!


  5. alex
    Posted 08/03/2011 at 12:11 | Permalink

    It’s time to take a hard look at the problem. According to most predictions the poorest people in the world are the ones who will suffer the most. Such as subsistence farmers. It’s hard to see Westerners giving up there 4X4s, overseas holidays and all the other unnecessary luxuries or paying a premium for carbon capture to protect individuals which they have never met. The only sensible way to address the issue is to prepare for it.
    Yes politicians across the world are paying lip service to it. But none are prepared to do the drastic measures that would make any difference. Otherwise they would be out at the next election. They talk about carbon credits Yet it is nigh on impossible to calculate accurately the carbon foot print of anything. Let me give an example: If you buy something as simple as a cup. Yes you can calculate the carbon footprint of the fuel used to dig out the clay, to shape it, fire it and deliver it. But what of the people who make it,deliver it and those who build the lorries and ship. because you have bought it, they have a job, so they have money, so they spend money on luxuries which they would not have done otherwise.

    Surely if the world is warming then some parts of the planet will become more productive and could be used to grow more food. We have already seen ships taking advantage of warming by using the arctic ocean to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Yes there are real dangers but we must also look for opportunities.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    A good point but you have forgotten about permafrost. If it melts it will release huge quantities of methane which has 20 times the greenhouse effect of CO2. This could lead to run away warning that could reduce the available productive land and the kind of crops that can be grown. If that happens mankind will have to take some mitigating action or suffer the consequences; flood, tempest, famine, war. So one of the contingencies must be to research the possible mitigating actions. Sooner rather than later.


    Patrick J dorrian Reply:

    Methane from the permafrost is probably just a fraction of the methane currently stored as ice on the continental shelves. Warming of the seas constitutes a potential hazard as it may cause these ice deposits to thaw allowing vast quantities to enter the atmosphere.
    In the words of Private Frazier in “Dad’s Army”, “We’re doomed”. The unfortunate corollory of man’s tinkering nature is that many cures will be tried and each will have an unforeseen consequence. Well done venture capitalism.


  6. Posted 05/03/2011 at 10:42 | Permalink

    Cultural change requires social change and social change require political change. This is not a change in party but a significant change in political system and resource management. Adapting to climate change hinges on a single-most important factor, contingency planning – a subject that current politics appears to be embarrassingly poor at.


    Jenny Pickerill Reply:

    I agree, but we also need as individuals to understand that we too can contingency plan. It is not something that we should just leave to the government. As individuals we have choices about what types of houses we want to live and build.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    What is your timescale? If you are thinking of 150 years then of course you are right. But in the near future that is not realistic. There are millions of houses in Britain. Are you advocating that individuals buy a house and demolish it to build something more “sustainable”? Most people struggle to buy a house and plots that individuals can afford to buy and build are in very short supply. Modifying the existing housing stock would reap more immediate rewards. Not only is the carbon already sunk but only a relatively small amount of additional CO2 is required to reduce it’s future emissions.

    Where houses are subject to continual flooding and become uninsurable there is an opportunity for more innovative solutions. However, persuading insurance companies to demolish and rebuild using new technology rather than repair and refuse to re-insure will be a matter for government not individuals.


  7. Ben Anderson
    Posted 03/03/2011 at 18:34 | Permalink

    For me the most important sentence in Dr Pickerill’s article is this: “Predicting what climatic changes will occur is a difficult science, yet alone interpreting what that means for how we live”.

    I think our efforts are best expended on attempting to reduce carbon emmissions rather than trying to develop ways of living with the consequences of climate change. It might seem easier to do the latter, to adapt to change rather than prevent it, but in fact – can we really predict exactly how to adapt? Should someone living in say Oxfordshire try to make their house mroe resilient to heat or cold, or both? Or is humidity going to be a key factor, rather than temperature? Or high winds? Or is the cracking effect of expanding ice going to be the thing to be most concerned about? Or should our oxfordhire dweller just move up to higher ground because of increased flooding? How expensive is high grounf going to cost? Or is it going to get so hot that the important thing is to prepare our homes for keeping out crocodiles and poisonous smakes? Or locusts? Or sand storms? Or what? I think she is saying something along these lines towards the end: “Moreover, it requires us to build ready for changes that many of us have only vaguely understood to be happening; to change behaviour for an unknown future. It is not technology, or really even politics, which is holding us back in making these changes, it is deep rooted cultural and social understandings of how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.”

    Personally I think it is difficult to reduce carbon emmissions but it will be an awful lot harder to adapt to climate change.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    Ben Anderson’s analysis is a good one but I think, for those that survive, dealing with climate change will be more interesting than going to the office every day. Insulation is the best thing we can do for ourselves. Building base load power from wave and geothermal sources is the best public thing we can do. Other than that, we can adapt as circumstances dictate.


    Jenny Pickerill Reply:

    Useful comments and of course I agree that the main difficulty with adapting to climate change is the uncertainty, but I really wanted to raise the point that we are not even really talking about this yet. We are still building new houses which we expect to stand for the next 50 to 100 years or so without even thinking through what the climate will be like in 50 years. Whether we like it or not we are already constructing the infrastructure of the future, and we need to be thinking more creatively about what that infrastructure will need to do. There is a balance to be struck here and currently we are focusing too much on mitigation.

    The point I was also trying to make is that changing our technology is a lot easier and quicker than it is to change our culture. Part of changing our culture is to have those discussions about what the future might look like and how we are going to adapt to it.


    Chris Williams Reply:

    We have been urged for years to change our construction methods as has been done in The Netherlands, particularly for Government subsidised social housing, with scant progress. With the public and the building industry lacking enthusiasm and no real price advantage without large investment, a government Subsidy is required. The current government will find that difficult given it’s rhetoric unless the public leans hard on it’s green credentials. I cannot see a campaign attracting the support in the same way as woodlands so progress will remain slow for the foreseeable future.


  8. Chris J
    Posted 25/02/2011 at 16:51 | Permalink

    It’s clear that we’re almost at the point where prevention of significant climate change is no longer possible. That’s not an argument for giving up on that but a clear incentive to preapre ourselves and adapt to what is looking increasingly inevitable.


  9. Posted 25/02/2011 at 14:39 | Permalink

    Maybe two of the three little pigs were more canny than we were led to believe, and the smug one with the expensive brick house had paid too much. If they had stored their food collectively and built a refuge, their straw houses could have been blown away and the big bad wolf wouldn’t have got them!


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