Thursday, 8 March 2012

Models, mosquitoes and the power to adapt

When it comes to climate change, why are mosquitoes afforded a more active role than people in our visions of the future? This sounds far-fetched, but in climate impacts studies the capacity of mosquitoes to adapt to changing climates has been increasingly accepted, but the same cannot often be said for the adaptive capacity of human beings. What does this say about how we use climate models in decision-making?

As part of my data-gathering in India I’ve been looking into how projections of future climate change are being made and how they are being applied to decision making processes. One of the key areas of concern for Indian scientists and policymakers is the possible impact of climate change on human health, particularly through changes in the prevalence of vector-borne diseases such as malaria.

fumigation against malaria mosquito in india Global warming is already the greatest threat to human health
Fumigation in an urban area. Source:
It’s been interesting to look into the methodologies used for predicting future malaria patterns. In the recent ‘4x4 Assessment’ produced by the Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment (INCCA), it was reported that there is a likelihood that the spatial extent of malaria may increase slightly by the 2030s, with states like Jammu and Kashmir experiencing new outbreaks. Other states which already play host to malaria-bearing mosquitoes may see the annual ‘transmission window’ lengthen. However, it is acknowledged that making predictions about malarial risks decades into the future is a very difficult task.

For the INCCA assessment, transmission windows were calculated by looking at changes in average temperatures and levels of relative humidity, as projected by a regional climate model. However, mosquitoes of course do not have much interest in meteorological averages. It’s therefore acknowledged that the predictions are undermined by the propensity of mosquitoes to seek out ‘micro-niches’, i.e. spaces where they can enjoy their favoured climatic conditions even when the average temperature or humidity isn’t to their liking. This might mean that they can be found around standing water when relative humidity levels are low, or sheltering inside buildings when summer temperatures are too high.
Source: Wired

The acknowledgement of this behaviour struck me as being quite interesting in the context of our dominant modes of thought concerning climate adaptation. In some ways, the mosquitoes are showing a high level of adaptive capacity to rising temperatures, and our knowledge of this means that they are afforded a high level of what might be termed ‘adaptive agency’ in our attempts to visualize the future. In the epistemic chain fashioned between model projections of rising temperatures and visions of impacts on human systems, mosquitoes are afforded an active role in seeking out favourable physical conditions for their existence, below the level of crude statistics on which so much adaptation thinking operates.

This kind of adaptive agency is often not afforded to humans when it comes to thinking about climate impacts. As Mike Hulme has argued in a recent paper, our dominant approach to thinking about the impacts of climate change has placed humans at the end of a reductionist causal chain and eradicated human agency. He attributes this epistemic phenomenon to the ‘hegemony’ of climate models in political and social debate:

These models and calculations allow for little human agency, little recognition of evolving, adapting and innovating societies, and little attempt to consider the changing values, cultures and practices of humanity. The contingencies of the future are whitewashed out of the future. Humans are depicted as “dumb farmers”, passively awaiting their climate fate. The possibilities of human agency are relegated to footnotes, the changing cultural norms and practices made invisible, the creative potential of the human imagination ignored.
For the discourse of ‘climate impacts’ to have internal consistency and immediate political bite, humans must necessarily be positioned as the inert targets of cascading calculations of rising temperatures, changing environments, and strained economic systems. I agree with Mike Hulme that this is a deleterious strategy which not only provides little insight on what future human societies will look like, but which also contains within it an assumption about how adaptation should be managed: top-down re-alignment of social systems so that they may absorb the shocks of changing external, determinant conditions.

What needs to be recognised is that human societies will adapt to changing circumstances in unpredictable, innovative and diverse ways. Much like the wily mosquitoes and their contempt for climatic averages, communities are already adapting to changing environments without any reference to what the mean regional temperature might be 30 or 40 years hence. Such predictions may be useful for identifying where new stresses might arise, but the capacity to deal with those stresses lies at the level of individuals, communities and institutions, and these must be supported in generating resilience by making space for flexible, reflexive decision making.

Human culture can be thought of as a form of order which is in a constant process of emergence from a state of disorder. This emergence means the continual seeking of new ‘micro-niches’ in which individuals can flourish culturally, socially, economically, spiritually. Holistically accounting for these processes – not to mention predicting them – is impossible. But recognising this great source of uncertainty (arguably a greater source than the behaviour of the climate system under anthropogenic forcing) will go a long way towards re-structuring our epistemic approach to adaptation. Like mosquitoes, future humans will not be ‘known’ at the resolution of a climate prediction.


  1. Another dimension of this argument concerns the notion of shifting (climatic) baselines. English climate has warmed by about 0.5degC between 1961-1990 and 1981-2010 (adopting standard WMO 30-yr normals). So how well has English society 'weathered' such a regional warming? How have we adapted - advertently or inadvertently? Pretty well I'd say (although devising a formal method to quantify this adaptation would be an interesting project).

  2. Thanks for your comment Mike. This question of unquantifiable or perhaps even indiscernible adaptation is indeed interesting. Perhaps we would need to start by attempting a genealogy of the very notion of 'adaptation' itself. My sense is that it started life as a political category; as one of the two choices available in societies' responses to climate change - mitigate or adapt. It was thus a category of future action, framed as a response to the kind of abstracted, predicted risks embodied by the likes of the 'burning embers' diagram (e.g.

    Increasingly now we talk of adaptation in the present or recent past, but this is often framed as "adaptation already" - ahead of its time somehow. Thus the concept retains one foot in the future. How then can the concept readily account for the 'weathering' you describe? Has our theory of adaptation got enough flexibility to be applicable to the subtle changes societies enact or undergo in response to their environment, whatever the degree of intention? Perhaps 'adaptation' - as concept and action - needs deeper historicization before it can yield descriptive or explanatory power in such cases.

  3. nice post martin, i think the comparison of mosquitos and humans works well! may i take one little step further and add that the lack of imagination when it comes to human agency is also due to the dominant cultural narrative within which the whole debate takes place. within a narrative of development, progress and growth it is very hard to even begin talking about the future as radically different from the present. we end up in a situation where if change can't be managed, it can't be imagined (at least in the minds of policy makers). it is interesting to think what happens if we let go of the idea that societies progress in a linear fashion, it is like all sort of futures pop out of the box! what may policy-making based on the realisation that we are getting poorer look like? well this may be more relevant in the west, it may still take another decade of development in india before this becomes relevant...

    1. You're quite right. 'Adaptation' seems to be normative before it is descriptive, and our imagination is limited both by the dominant narratives you describe and by our inability to epistemically separate change from management. It's a classic case of co-production of a scientific and socio-political order.

      India of course has been one of the countries where the dominant narrative of linear development has been subjected to the most challenge. There are plenty of people arguing for alternatives, and this seems to be reflected in quite a widespread suspicion of framing adaptation as the latest stage in a linear path to prosperity. Indeed, some NGOs are questioning whether 'adaptation' actually has any worth as an object of study, or whether it would simply mean re-doing a lot of their extant analyses of environmental and social injustice. However, the approach of the state still seems wedded to the deterministic and developmentalist paradigm.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. I've not read this yet, but it appears to be of relevance:

    "...adaptation cost estimates are an example of boundary objects, used to manage normative and highly politicized claims for restitution using scientific and therefore apolitical language and framings."