Future Tense

A Welcome Lesson From an Invasive Species

What a dastardly plant in Nepal tells us about adapting to climate (and not just climate change).

Mikania micrantha, taken in Kadavoor, Kerala, India.

© 2009 Jeevan Jose/Wikimedia Commons

Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a stretch of grasslands, forests, and wetlands in the humid foothills of the Himalayas, is home to an enormous diversity of plants and animals. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park provides refuge to Bengal tigers and some of the last of the world’s single-horned Asiatic rhinoceroses, among other endangered species. Most people in the region scrape out a living through smallholder farming, almost fully dependent on the environment and its resources for their livelihoods. As that environment changes—because of land degradation, shifts in the monsoon, and groundwater depletion—their lives and livelihoods become more precarious.

But a more immediate menace threatens the people, flora, and fauna in the region: a bright green flowering vine named Mikania micrantha that is smothering everything in its path so aggressively that by 2010 it had covered at least one-fifth of the national park. It’s a nightmare of an invasive species, but park officials are reluctant to turn to chemicals to fight it, fearing impacts on the rest of the ecosystem. Using young trees and shrubs for support, the fast-growing weed forms a dense cover over native plants and fodder grasses. Not content to merely block its victims’ access to sunlight and water, Mikania micrantha actually poisons its competitors by releasing chemicals to inhibit their growth. The plant propagates by producing thousands of lightweight barbed seeds, plus roots from its own broken stems and leaves. Yikes.

But what if Mikania micrantha could be used to solve some of the very problems it’s causing? If harvested on a large scale and turned into a charcoal product called biochar, the plant could offer all sorts of advantages to local farmers. Biochar can be added to soils as a fertilizer, increasing crop yields and helping the soil retain water. Biochar can also be converted into “green charcoal” and used as a fuel, reducing the time and effort needed to gather firewood—time and effort usually expended by women and children—and helping to protect local forests. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, biochar has even more potential benefits: It can filter water, sequesters carbon, and can be a source of income when sold as a fertilizer or fuel, as has been done successfully in Haiti.

Implementing this adaptation requires innovations in harvesting, to develop a user-friendly tool that ensures the entire plant is yanked out. Improvements in biochar processing to dry and pyrolyze the biomass efficiently are also needed. Right now, a team of researchers from Arizona State University (including one of us—Netra), Tribhuvan University, and the Agriculture and Forest University in Nepal, in collaboration with the Community Forest Users Group and farmers in the region, is working on making this a reality. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) By piloting a solution to the production of biochar from Mikania micrantha that’s customized to the particular needs of the area, the team hopes to ultimately help lift the smallholder farmers out of poverty, empower their communities, and better adapt to climate.  

That last sentence might seem to be missing a word (shouldn’t it be “adapt to climate change”?), and anyway, the connection between an invasive species in a remote corner of the planet and climate adaptation may not be apparent. When most people think about climate adaptation, if they think about it at all, they tend to envision large-scale engineering projects like seawalls to protect coastal cities against sea-level rise. This makes sense as an obvious response to one of the most significant hazards of climate change, even as its timing and magnitude remain highly contested. But a seawall alone is in many ways a woefully inadequate response, the equivalent of watching Mikania micrantha encircle a Nepalese farm and determining that the solution is to invest in a good pair of pruning shears.

The problem is not only that some hazards are or will be getting worse due to climate change. It’s that we’re poorly adapted to the climate now. Take one example: A heat wave in Chicago in 1995 was responsible for the deaths of more than 700 people. The peak temperature during the five days of the heat wave was 106 degrees. That’s less than the average high in Phoenix during the month of July; as any sweaty Phoenician can tell you, temperatures above 100 degrees—the hazard—are uncomfortable but not deadly on their own, even as outlier events. How a community prepares for and responds to that hazard makes all the difference, and Chicago in 1995 was poorly adapted to temperatures that, while extreme, were not unheard of—the city experienced similar temperatures just seven years earlier.

Since then, the Windy City has made progress in dealing with these high temps: A comparable 2012 heat wave caused relatively few deaths, mainly as a result of non-meteorological factors like a better heat advisory system and more air conditioning. This example demonstrates the need for innovative thinking about how to build communities that are better adapted and more resilient to both the extremes of the current climate and whatever the future might hold.

Why? For one, we have little control over the hazards. Most efforts on the part of the international climate community try to keep the anticipated consequences of climate change from becoming totally unmanageable by limiting the world’s carbon emissions. The December 2015 international climate agreement in Paris was an important step in this process. But no matter how successfully that agreement is implemented, the world is already locked in to a certain amount of climate change. Just like we can’t go back in time and prevent Mikania micrantha’s importation to South Asia to help camouflage military installations, we’re stuck dealing with the consequences of two-and-a-half centuries and counting of powering society with fossil fuels.

The problem is even more basic than that: If climate change were to magically disappear, typhoons would continue to slam into coastlines, flooding would damage property and take lives, and farmers would have to deal with pernicious invasive species. Until our climate adaptation agenda reflects that reality, efforts that address mainly the problems caused by climate change can only ever have a marginal impact on helping communities to thrive.

What we do have control over, and are actually quite good at, is reducing the two factors that allow hazards to cause harm in the first place: exposure (whether people or property are subject to a hazard) and vulnerability (the susceptibility of suffering negative impacts when exposed to that hazard). Effectively addressing these two factors in a way that makes a community more resilient may have little direct connection to climate change. Instead, these adaptations promote or improve things like public health, emergency preparedness, community education, zoning laws, insurance regulation, and sustainable development.

Nepal’s attempt to deal with its weedy invader by turning it into biochar doesn’t have an obvious connection to climate change beyond its use as an environmentally friendly fuel and fertilizer. Rather, the project pragmatically addresses a number of problems in order to make farmers in the region more resilient to soil exhaustion, food and water insecurity, deforestation, and a changing and unpredictable climate.

We recently co-authored a report, “Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet,” which explores innovative adaptations and the lessons they offer for making the world better adapted to a wide variety of possible climate futures. Whether providing access to modern energy, reducing the isolation of poor minorities in urban centers, or sharing knowledge about how best to deal with extreme weather, adaptation must be more pragmatically oriented toward alleviating the problems that communities, often poor or isolated ones, need to overcome right now in order to flourish.

In searching for lessons from these adaptations, we found that societies that are prosperous, democratic, and well-governed are less vulnerable to hazards of all kinds. Innovative adaptations directed toward solving problems associated with social and economic development, rather than strictly the effects of a human-warmed climate, are the ones that will best enable communities to endure and even to thrive no matter what the future climate looks like.

This is precisely what the project in Nepal seeks to do. By transforming an invasive species into a fertilizer, filter, and fuel—even a source of income if the biochar is sold—this adaptation reduces some of the precariousness of smallholder farming and can provide a foundation for sustainable development. Discussions around climate change and adaptation often note that the poor will suffer disproportionately from global warming. What if instead of fixating on whatever global warming might do to poor people, we turn our attention to helping fragile communities become less exposed and vulnerable to all kinds of hazards?

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.