The lucky ones: The countries best-placed to cope with climate change

14th July 2021


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IEMA

Nick King considers which nations and regions could best deal with future environmental turmoil, and what the rest of the world could learn from their experiences

Donald Horne’s 1964 book The Lucky Country describes Australia as a nation blessed. The phrase has become a moniker for Australia in a wider sense – although the book does not actually describe the Australia of that time in flattering terms, with the nation’s economic success being ascribed to a lucky accident that occurred despite its leadership, rather than because of it.

However, the book’s message has since been lost (or rather, superseded); the phrase is now generally employed to describe Australia as a blessed country – rich in natural resources, sunny weather and New World ambition and optimism – and is conflated with a future of continued good luck.

The Great Acceleration

These are, of course, measures of good fortune as we understand them in a world that largely assumes a future of continuing economic growth and material progress. These have been the base assumptions of most world governments and institutions for decades – arguably centuries – as the global human project has shown a remarkable propensity for following a growth trajectory. Indeed, the period between the end of the Second World War and the current period has been described as ‘The Great Acceleration’ by academics studying the so-called Anthropocene era. The Great Acceleration is characterised by dramatic increases in the extent and intensity of global-scale human activities across a range of measures. These include (but are not limited to) human population, primary energy generation, freshwater use, nitrogen fixation and cement production

When Donald Horne was ruminating on Australia’s endowment and prospects, the trajectories of most measures of human progress were healthy. However, in recent decades it has become apparent that the growth of the human project is having global impacts. The aggregate effect of this dramatic growth has been the strong and increasing perturbation of the Earth’s system and biosphere, which is in turn generating ever-stronger effects (feedbacks) on human civilisation.

These feedbacks may manifest in several ways, but chief among them in terms of scope are arguably climate change, damage to the global biosphere (leading to the ‘sixth extinction event’) and global resource depletion. These phenomena can collectively be described as ‘environmental limit exceedances’, in line with studies on the ‘limits to growth’ and the planetary boundaries framework. These exceedances call into serious question the assumptions of open-ended economic growth.

Global winners

Given these trends, humanity is potentially facing a future in which rapid environmental change and turmoil may be widespread and pervasive, and the assumptions that have served as a social and economic bedrock through our collective recent history may fade into irrelevance. In this situation, the definition of a ‘lucky country’ may change significantly, becoming linked with the ability to weather future turmoil effectively and retain some degree of stability and cohesion. A question of fundamental importance could be: what countries could validly claim to be one of these relatively fortunate locations? Tables 1, 2 and 3 list the ways that environmental limits affect natural and human systems, the features that could help countries weather exceeded limits, and the regions that have these features.

Table 1: Natural and human systems affected by exceedances of environmental limits.


Table 2: Features and conditions that may give nations and regions the ability to weather the effects outlined in Table 1.


Table 3: Key nations and regions that have some or all of the characteristics outlined in Table 2.


Learning from the lucky

As can be seen, several nations and regions have conditions that may help them to weather potentially harsh future global conditions. However, while identifying the nations and regions with these features may be an interesting academic exercise, it is of limited value. The nature of future environmental conditions is a serious matter that threatens human life, welfare and achievement at all scales. How might this exercise be useful in helping the human predicament?

The answer is that these fortunate regions could act as templates for introducing changes that could increase resilience in the rest of the world, which is, after all, home to most of the world’s population. Some previous analyses have labelled these areas ‘lifeboats’, but this mentality of retreat is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, spreading the conditions that may promote future stability is likely to have greater systemic benefits.

For example, the fortunate regions may be able to maintain future agricultural output by virtue of relatively stable climates; an equivalent strategy elsewhere may be to alter agricultural practices to cater for climate instabilities, for example by moving away from industrial monocultures and intensive livestock rearing. Efforts to reduce resource footprints through local renewable energy sources, while decoupling as far as possible from global supply chains, may also increase resilience. Perhaps most importantly, co-operation between regions of the world likely to be affected differentially by environmental changes (in other words, avoiding the ‘lifeboat’ situation) may be fundamentally important.

So, was Donald Horne right? Australia could suffer climatic impacts on its continental landmass this century, but may have a ‘local haven’ in the form of the temperate island of Tasmania, which could provide something of a refuge for populations seeking more amenable conditions. So, a potentially mixed picture for Australia, but other nations, notably New Zealand, and arguably Ireland and Iceland, may ultimately be the truly ‘lucky countries’.

Nick King, MIEMA CEnv, is a visiting research fellow at the Global Sustainability Instistute at Anglia Ruskin University.

Image credit: iStock

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