In a bizarre statement about climate change, the former head of Plymouth city council suggested that, rather than trying to find solutions, we should instead learn to live in “barren, sandy landscapes”. As a former member of the climate denialist UKIP party, this pivot from outright denial to ‘It’s real, but there’s nothing we can do’ is a common phenomenon. Though this abdication of responsibility is merely another tactic of predatory delay to climate action, there is a perverse kernel of truth in his statement. As much as we must mitigate climate change, its impact on our global system has already begun, and it will continue to wreak havoc for some time. It is now also a question of adaptation, rather than outright prevention.
But what will we have to learn to adapt to? What ecology will anthropogenic climate change impose on us? A barren, sandy landscape, or something else entirely?
A Steppe is, broadly defined, a large area of open, forestless grassland. The regions this includes stretches or contracts depending upon the definition used. Some reserve it only for the vast grasslands that stretch across Eurasia. Others include the Great Plains of North America. In the broadest conceptions, we can include the Llanos of Venezuela and the Pampas of Argentina. Steppeland is often too dry for forests or swamps, but not hot enough to become desert. Some steppe regions suffer violent rainy seasons — sudden inundations that drown all but the hardiest grasses — before aridity suddenly returns. Many steppes undergo periodic fires that keep vegetation low and scrubby.
But in these respects, steppe landscapes are not unique. Some forests undergo periodic fires. Some suffer floods, and some dry seasons. What sets the Steppe apart from other ecologies is the extremity of their conditions. They oscillate from desert dry to torrential downpours, fiery days and sub-zero nights. They are also unpredictable. Even with seasonal variations, it is extremely difficult to predict accurately the weather on the wide open plains. This is why the cultures that emerged in these regions grew so mobile, able to follow the seasonal pastures with their herds, but also to quickly change course if conditions changed. These vast windswept lands favoured the hardy and swift.
So unlike many ecosystems, the steppe is often maintained by the volatility and unpredictability of its climate and weather. They do not oscillate neatly through seasonal variations, rather, they are prone to extremity at all times of the year. The lack of predictability and moderation keeps their ecology hardy and sparse.
There is a long pedigree, in both literature and science, of predicting the world will convert entirely to a singular ecological state. This is not without real parallels, the swampy, jungle planet of the Carboniferous era or the arid desert world of the late Permian are paleontological examples. J.G Ballard produced perhaps the most famous fictional example, with his book ‘The Drowned World’ illustrating an overheated planet covered in endless miasmic swamps. Scientists too like to talk about the potential for a ‘Hothouse Earth’, though with less prescriptive outcomes. But the idea, and history, of climate change globalising a singular ecological state is not without precedence.
Climate change, not to mention the breakdown of ecological systems, is undeniably forcing us into a new climatic regime. The Holocene, a time of stability, predictability, and mild temperatures, is over. In this unfamiliar post-Holocene world, we are facing a fundamentally discontinuous climate. Everywhere in the world, the weather is becoming extreme and unpredictable. Regions in drought suddenly suffer massive flooding. Major rivers run dry and storms run longer, stronger, and more erratically than we have ever seen before. Whilst the global average temperature is going up, local weather systems are oscillating erratically between records of heat and cold. Taiwan, for example, experienced both its hottest March on record and the latest snowfall ever recorded. As extreme weather affects the entire globe, variations between regions are shrinking. If our world is destined to homogenize towards any singular state, it is one where extreme uncertainty leaves only the hardiest and most adaptable plants, animals, and people standing. In other words, a Steppe world.
A Gentoo Penguin. Source: Picturebox
The South Atlantic is changing rapidly from the effects of climate breakdown. It is growing warmer, and it’s familiar currents and flows are weakening. These changes to weather and climate are also affecting the animals that call it home, and many penguin species reliant on tried and tested survival strategies are in decline. As their world changes, their unchanging nature leaves the penguins vulnerable — perfectly adapted to a system that, increasingly, no longer exists. But this is not the case with all penguins.
Whilst most colonies are in decline, even collapse, Gentoo penguins are another story. Their numbers are exploding. What sets them aside is their adaptability. They readily abandon nesting grounds if the weather grows too harsh, and migrate to new hunting areas as food does. This nomadic, adaptable model of existence is serving them incredibly well as the world becomes more unpredictable. Whilst the closely related but unadaptable Chinstrap penguins have declined as much as 80%, some Gentoo populations have risen over 30,000%.
This is in all likelihood how societies will have to react to climate change. If they want to be successful, that is. Entire cities will need to pull in from the coast, and those in areas of aridification must adapt or flee to where the water is. Already we see signs of this. Climate migrants, both within nations and between, must move to survive and thrive. In Hermits Peak, New Mexico, a whole regional economy was destroyed by forest fire. The residents who succeed will be those who can most easily change or move on. A steppe world is an enemy of the sedentary and sentimental.
The conditions that push us closer to a steppe-world are already emerging at less than 1.5C warming. Almost all worldwide weather systems are trending toward the erratic. The systems subject to these novel conditions — whether ecological, social, or economic — will be hammered from multiple types of extremity. If warming continues, these extremes will break the baseline that allows these systems to function. Eventually, they will undergo a ‘phase change’ toward the average ecological state able to survive multiple spectrums of extreme conditions, from bitter cold to blistering heat and baking aridity to violent deluges. Inevitably, these places come to be dominated by the hardy and adaptable.
Realistically, we are likely to breach 2C of warming this century, and probably sooner rather than later. Already this year’s El Nino is on course to push us above the 1.5C warming threshold. Adapting our current society beyond 2C, as Julia Steinberger points out, is not feasible:
Science has moved on: in our ignorance, we used to think that 2°C was still a relatively ‘safe’ warming range. In bad news the world has not yet caught up with, we now know that beyond 2°C degrees of warming adaptation to impacts is simply not feasible.
If we cannot adapt existing societies, then the only option left is to create new ones ready for these conditions. Anarchist communes are moving into abandoned farms of water-stressed regions, but many pastoralists are being forced into a sedentary existence. The future Steppe world, if it comes, is one we seem unprepared for. Perhaps one great stream of migration, as predicted by Gaia Vince in Nomad Century, is the future. But just as likely is a more fluid, changeable series of social contracts spreading out across defunct borders, morphing into the new conditions they find themselves within. The process of their emergence is likely to be chaotic and sporadic as the steppe-world they are adapting to.