Even as many governments seem too paralysed to act on climate change, some people and organisations are beginning to adapt to its challenges and threats. And there are cases where their efforts are providing benefits that can be enjoyed by their communities, without receiving any financial reward. While such acts currently don’t get much attention, Emma Tompkins from the University of Southampton, UK, and Hallie Eakin from Arizona State University think they’re fairly common. Emma told me that private actions like farmers allowing their fields to flood to protect more developed areas downstream could be worth millions. “The cost of adapting to climate change could be significantly reduced if we can harness that, and encourage greater provision of these public goods,” she said.
When Hallie and Emma first met, they were surprised to find that they both knew cases where people were acting in this way. Emma had heard tell of farmers in the UK and France who let their fields be flooded to protect others. Meanwhile Hallie knew that small coffee growers in Mexico deliberately encouraged a greater variety of plants to increase soil stability and reduce the risk of landslides in an area prone to hurricanes. “We then became increasingly interested and started finding evidence it wasn’t just the two of us having very unusual examples,” Emma explained. “It seemed to be reasonably widespread.”
The pair followed up the idea just because they found it interesting while on summer holidays from university, without any direct funding. They limited themselves to looking to see what other similar actions had previously been reported in scientific research papers. “That’s not to say that that’s all that exists, but you’ve then got a reasonable assurance that there is an evidence trail that underpins what you’re reading,” Emma explained. But they found that few other researchers had already looked directly at how individual people are adapting to climate change for the broader public good. And while they could discover these actions among existing research studies, as they’re not the main focus they are harder to find.
But as well as European and Mexican farmers, the sustainability and adaptation researchers did find another example where private citizens provide public benefits from the Caribbean, as well as one where they disadvantage the community in the UK. In the Caribbean some homeowners empty outdoor water containers to avoid stagnant water collecting and providing a home for mosquito larvae. This prevents the spread of the disease-carrying insects, though not every part of society gets involved. In the UK homeowners are increasingly covering their gardens with decking or paving rather than grass, which adds to the risk of flooding. The effects of some of these actions are clearly accidental, giving Emma one answer to the question that she is especially interested in: What makes people change how they act in ways that affect people around them?
The right way to avoid spending money on climate change
In the February issue of the research journal Global Environmental Change, she and Hallie made a first attempt to fully answer why people might choose to do things that benefit their community. They looked at three different ways that people might be motivated. One way is through altruism, providing a public good for reasons like the pleasure of helping others. The second is money. The third, more complex, way is non-financial benefit. “There’s the example of the company who funds roundabout greening in the UK, planting flowers to make them look nice and putting a big sign in the middle of the roundabout which advertises their business,” Emma explains. “The private sector is often willing to provide public goods for compensation that is not directly financial. There’s lots of potential to exploit this, particularly in the area of adaptation, where people might not be taking action themselves adequately or with enough forethought at present.”
If they find a funding source Emma and Hallie now want to take their research on and produce a much larger database of examples of private people and organisations providing public climate adaptation benefits. They also hope to look at whether the motivations they’ve described behind the actions are true in those cases, and which is most common, so that more people can be encouraged to follow suit. Even if financial motivation is needed, such behaviour can still help nations rich and poor save themselves a great deal of money, Emma underlined. “For example, consider the consequences of a flood in a major UK city compared to the costs of adaptation,” she said. “It’s significantly cheaper to compensate one or two people who lose land upstream than the whole of a major city. The money saved could be spent on education, health or other things that are important if we find the right mechanisms to support this type of adaptation.”