Has climate change adaptation lost its way?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 7 April 2014 08:28 GMT

A Kashmiri boy paddles his boat in the waters of Anchar Lake on a sunny day in Srinagar, India, April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

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Some experts say adaptation has been watered down to fit aid agendas, and it's time for a transformation

Poor farmers regrow trees on their land in the Sahel for food, animal fodder, fuel and crop protection. Communities threatened by rising seas on the Carteret atoll in Papua New Guinea move permanently to Bougainville, the country's main island. The Netherlands devises coastal and river-flood protection schemes with a planning horizon of two centuries. Scientists collaborate to breed new varieties of drought-tolerant maize for Africa.

What do these efforts have in common, beyond targeting the rising impacts of climate change? According to researchers writing in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) two years ago, they are all examples of what is called "transformational adaptation".

What’s that? It’s adaptation that is at a much larger scale or is new to a region or resource system. It fundamentally alters a place or shifts to a different one. "Transformational adaptation" is needed when the familiar approach of "doing slightly more of what is already being done to deal with natural variation in climate and with extreme events" just isn't enough to address larger climate risks and vulnerabilities, the experts wrote in the PNAS article.

In recent days, the word "transform" has been flying around in climate circles. The summary of the new report on climate impacts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes: "Transformations in economic, social, technological, and political decisions and actions can enable climate-resilient pathways." I'll come back to that in a bit.

The head of the U.N. climate secretariat, Christiana Figueres, described the IPCC report as "a tale of two futures - one of inaction and degradation of our environment, our economies, and our social fabric. The other (aims) to seize the moment and the opportunities for managing climate change risks and making transformational change that catalyses more adaptive and resilient societies where new technologies and ways of living open the door to a myriad of health, prosperity and job-generating benefits."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also chimed in, calling for "transformative collective action to reduce emissions rapidly enough to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to strengthen resilience to the many climate impacts that are already occurring or are bound to happen".

What does all this talk about transformation mean? The message is clear: the world has not yet changed radically enough to prevent dangerous levels of global warming, nor even to protect itself from the more extreme weather, gradual climate shifts and sea-level rise that are already hitting us. Instead we've been fiddling with adaptation while the planet burns.

That, says Lisa Schipper, an adaptation expert and associate with the Stockholm Environmnent Institute, was never the intention - at least among scientists.


"Adaptation was always meant to be transformational but it somehow lost its edge; it lost its spunk and it became just another term for development," she tells me.

When aid agencies, the United Nations and other multilateral institutions got their hands on adaptation a decade or more ago, they started shaping it into something that would be palatable to their staff and their funders. "The revolutionary part of it - that we have to really make a huge change - has fallen out of the way," laments Schipper.

To her mind, climate change adaptation cannot end with people knowing where to escape when floods come or building stronger houses that withstand storms. "We have to go so much further in thinking what sustainable development is, and how development is contributing in an adverse way to vulnerability to climate change," she argues.

In that case, and given the stark warnings about what will happen if we don't cut greenhouse gas emissions harder and faster, it's probably a good thing that the concept of "transformational adaptation" is worming its way off the pages of academic journals and into the real world.

Still, it didn't get a particularly warm reception when it cropped up in the draft summary of the IPCC report, presented to policy makers for approval in Yokohama, Japan, at the end of last month.

Saleemul Huq, an IPCC coordinating leader author who was there, describes it as "one of the more debatable issues". Governments weren't familiar with it, and haggled over its definition, says the director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

In the end, the phrase didn't survive in the final version of the summary, partly due to opposition from some South American nations. Not only that, a new sentence about transformations helping societies become more resilient to climate change was qualified by an additional line: "At the national level, transformation is considered most effective when it reflects a country’s own visions and approaches to achieving sustainable development in accordance with their national circumstances and priorities."

Whatever that might mean in practice, it certainly reflects a level of political discomfort with the idea of "transformational adaptation". "I think the concern is that there might be some kind of requirement for countries to change in a certain way," says SEI's Schipper. "They don't want to have any kind of formula imposed on them for how they have to transform."


Government officials aren't the only ones running scared. Aid workers dealing with disasters and poverty on the ground every day can also resist disruptions to the systems they know.

"(Transformational adaptation) comes across as a bit too fluffy, a bit too idealistic, hippy-like ... but it signals that we may need bigger shifts and we should practically think about those bigger shifts and include them in our range of options," says Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and an IPCC lead author.

Aalst says that in his view, transformational adaptation is not about striving for some kind of “Let's all be happy” green utopia. It includes practical things such as a fledgling Red Cross mechanism to deliver upfront aid money before a disaster happens, based on weather forecasts and early warning indicators like river poles that measure rising waters in Togo.

To Huq, it indicates "a new way of thinking about adaptation beyond simply the coping".

"You want to do more than just cope with the hurricanes and cyclones and floods - you want to come out better at the other end", he says. To do that you have to make changes across societies and economies, not only in individual localities, he adds.

But is that happening? Despite the general rhetoric that climate adaptation is advancing, Schipper fears it's going nowhere fast.

"We've got our wheels in the sand and we're spinning out all these new phrases and new concepts and ideas and new policy documents, but I don't know if we are actually progressing," she sighs.

"If it's true that more people are being affected by extreme events, and people are more vulnerable, I think we need to wonder: the strategy for action that we've taken - is that really working?"

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