Adapting to climate change

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The Encyclopedia Britannica states: “adaptation, in biology, the process by which a species becomes fitted to its environment. [...] Organisms are adapted to their environments in a great variety of ways: in their structure, physiology and genetics, in their locomotion or dispersal, in their means of defence and attack, in their reproduction and development, and in other respects”. 

Constant adaptation to our shared home

Life on Earth is the story of a continuous adaptation of different species to their environment. During the evolution, various animal and plant species have always internalized changing conditions, devising creative solutions for survival. Nowadays, the natural environment in which we live is undergoing deep and sudden changes, and despite the actions taken, it would be utopian to think that recent efforts, however great, would be able to solve the problem. 

So, what does adaptation mean when it comes to climate change? Adaptation implies the planning of strategies capable of anticipating the effects of climate change in order to significantly reduce its impact on particularly vulnerable individuals, places and economic systems. The creation of adaptive strategies is made particularly urgent by the speed at which these changes are taking place and that, given their pervasiveness, affect many aspects of our societies, as the EEA has also underlined. 

The European stage

At the European level, the discussion on this topic began in 2013. In fact, the European Commission drew up guidelines to help our society adapt to future climate change. Among the indications given to the Member States, the EU stressed the importance of environmental risk prevention actions, such as remediation in areas where toxic agents are detected, prevention of hydrogeological instability, maintenance of infrastructures and a strengthening of the health service.

Assuming a scenario of a sharp rise in temperature, an estimate made by the European Commission forecasts a significant drop in GDP. The Commission has tried to calculate the monetary value of a hypothetical failure to adapt: in 2050 the total amount of economic, social and environmental costs would be around €250bn per year for the European Union. 

Through careful analysis and targeted action, countries are called upon to try to predict the impact of climate change on their territories. This implies close co-operation between institutions, the third sector and scientific research. But that is not all. In addition to general intervention, it will also be necessary for each productive reality and each territory to create and implement adaptive strategies aimed not only at minimizing environmental repercussions, but also fallout in the areas of health and employment.

The European Commission's 2018 report clearly shows that climate-related damage will not be distributed evenly across the EU, but will vary according to the country's geography, infrastructure and population density. For humans, adapting also means rethinking all their core activities. It is clear that the world of work will also have to “rethink” itself and evolve, taking into account the indications provided by the Union and the risks associated with the regions. The economic weight, in terms of GDP, of these phenomena will also depend on the type of market and international trade (imports and exports) of each country. 

Working for workers

This is why some European and international organizations are also considering how to adapt the working system to climate change. In 2020, the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a report on the subject and, similarly, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) provided some guidelines on how to deal with the possible consequences of climate change in the labour market. In both documents, agriculture, tourism and transport are identified as particularly exposed sectors. As a general indication, the trade organizations suggest that companies’ health and safety policies should be reshaped to, first and foremost, protect the well-being of workers.

A rethink of policy in this area, also taking into account what has been learned during the pandemic, is essential. This is especially true for frail workers, those with chronic diseases and those who work outdoors. At the same time, however, it will be necessary to focus on other issues. Developing new professional skills and upskilling workers’ existing abilities will be necessary to respond to the inevitable professional changes, both in relation to job creation (especially thanks to technological and digital development) and in the event of a drop in productivity or employment in certain sectors. 

Knowing how to seize new business and job opportunities opened up by new environmental standards will help to ensure the survival of many jobs. Therefore, supporting research in the creation of green jobs and adapting young workers’ training to the new environmental, technological and social requirements could be a solution to facilitate their entry into (and subsequent growth within) the working world.

The next, necessary steps

In order to intervene in such a complex scenario, the ability of those involved to collaborate and activate partnerships between entities with different skills and backgrounds will be key. Adaptation policies should be approached in stratified ways, involving institutions, trade unions, companies, researchers, third sector bodies and citizens. In this way, in addition to creating an integrated vision by listening to different points of view, specific actions can be earmarked for a territory, taking its geographical, social and economic configuration into account. 

Institutions will have to accompany this fundamental step by encouraging dialogue between the various decision-making levels, funding the research world and monitoring the undertaken policies. Workers, on the other hand, will be able to experience change not as a bleak process, but as an opportunity to rethink the organization of their work and enrich their professionalism. We must make adaptation synonymous with intelligence and we must do it quickly. Only by working together and deploying creative solutions will it be possible to ensure our survival and, at the same time, reduce the impact of change on the weakest in our global society.