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Much climate adaptation work focuses on infrastructure and technology, ignoring politics - which could be its downfall
Back in mid-2007, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon caused quite a stir when he wrote in the Washington Post that "the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change".
The eminent international economist Jeffrey Sachs had trotted out a similar line to me a year earlier, in an interview at a conference in Finland. He argued there would be no chance for peace in the conflict-torn region of western Sudan unless its dire water shortages were tackled as part of any political settlement.
Slowly but surely, the Darfur crisis gained a reputation as a climate change conflict, in which worsening drought had pitted Arab nomads against settled African farmers in a deadly battle over dwindling natural resources.
It may have seemed like a revelation back then, but these days it's the sort of over-simplified analysis that makes researchers shudder.
As Katie Peters, a climate research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), pointed out at a debate on climate aid and politics this week, no one would think of trying to work out if the street violence that hit London in the summer of 2011 matched rainfall or temperature changes.
Her more serious point was that the debate over whether climate change is - or will be - a major cause of conflict has become a little more nuanced in the six or seven years since climate advocates began peddling the link with security as a way of blasting it up the global agenda.
Today, there is a greater appreciation that climate stresses are just one of many factors that can worsen existing social, political and economic tensions - but by how much it's often hard to know. AlertNet Climate's editor, Laurie Goering, described climate change as "turning up the volume".
"Whatever is already there - maybe it's political strife or environmental issues that are causing problems, or a lack of resources, you bring in climate change and it just magnifies each one of those things," she said. "It's everything taken together that is being aggravated by the climate change situation."
Simon Levine, a research fellow in ODI's humanitarian policy group, said he preferred to ask how conflict can make people more vulnerable to climate change, rather than the other way round. "It can never be a trade-off, because the argument is that climate change is also about politics," he said.
POLITICS IN DISGUISE
New research from the ODI argues that measures to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate extremes and sea-level rise, or to pursue clean development, need to take politics into account a great deal more than they do now. Because if they don't, they run a high risk of failing to make people more resilient to climate change and related problems in the longer term.
For example, an ambitious programme to tackle deforestation launched in the autonomous Indonesian province of Aceh, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami helped bring peace there, ended up breaking down completely, despite international financial backing. Differences between the provincial governor, a former separatist fighter, and Jakarta over who had the legal right to sign financial agreements and control revenues from forest carbon programmes caused foreign investors to pull out.
The ODI study also raises the thorny issue of how national climate change strategies in Uganda and Ethiopia have been designed in what appears to be a conscious effort by governments to undermine the pastoralist way of life, and with little consideration for the livelihoods of nomadic herders. The Ethiopian plan recommends a switch from cattle and camel keeping to poultry farming because it produces lower greenhouse gas emissions per kilo of meat, without giving information on how that change would be managed.
"Whether or not they are correct to see pastoralism as an outdated production system, it is important to note how a climate change policy presented in purely technical and uncontroversial terms may in fact be a highly political document, reliant on support for a policy that is at the very least highly controversial," the report says.
Equally in Darfur, a third case study, solutions to help ease shortages of food, water and other resources could make conflict worse if they simply pour in more resources without examining who can access them, it argues.
ODI's Peters praised the work done by aid group Practical Action in Darfur on food security and drought amid ongoing violence, which has been successful, she said, because the organisation’s staff have been in place for a long time and understand the local dynamics.
'ADAPTATION BY RIBBON-CUTTING'
But such wins remain the exception. The ODI study highlights how support for climate change adaptation has been implemented mainly as if it were a technical and apolitical challenge. Of the 4,104 adaptation initiatives officially declared to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, the largest number of activities falls under the category of infrastructure, technology and innovation, it notes.
Tom Tanner, a research fellow at the Sussex University Institute of Development Studies, said the tendency towards "adaptation by ribbon-cutting" - meaning a physical project that can be opened by a politician - has been driven by a need to show tangible and quick results for climate spending.
"A capacity-building programme doesn't really have the same appeal as a giant sea defence in terms of cutting the ribbon," he said. Programmes that work more on institutions or on influencing access to resources and political voice take longer, are far more complicated, and harder to track for effectiveness, he added.
The media also contributes by focusing on coverage of technical solutions to climate change, from new crop varieties to renewable energy and irrigation schemes, said AlertNet's Goering. "It's easier to wrap up physical adaptation in that kind of a package than try to explain in the headline of a story that political strife in country X may be underlying this situation," she said.
ODI's Peters said there is nothing wrong with techno-centric approaches per se, but they must be put in their political context or risk being "completely blinkered".
Levine warned that ignoring power and politics is a recipe for failure for any aid project. "If you throw resources at the problem without having understood it, you are as likely to make it worse as better," he said.
You wouldn't want a doctor to treat you with a medicine simply because the money was available to pay for that treatment, without trying to work out what your health problem was first, he said.
"I am not sending my kids to that doctor, but we send our planet to that doctor," he added.
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