The Hazards of Disconnectedness in Climate Change Adaptation Discourse

The Hazards of Disconnectedness in Climate Change Adaptation Discourse

Adaptation in Climate Change

Climate change is a global, disruptive, and transformational phenomenon that carries multidimensional implications for society and ecosystems. Threats to human health are on the rise as food production from extreme heat, degraded air quality in densely populated cities, and increases in vector-borne diseases are triggered indirectly or directly by climate change. Sea levels are also rising, putting at risk the lives of millions of people living in coastal areas like the Caribbean, India, Bangladesh, and others. As weather systems intensify and drastic shifts like droughts and flooding increase, coping with and adapting to this new reality is becoming increasingly urgent, especially for vulnerable and marginalized communities in many developing countries. 

According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), adaptation is defined as “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects”. It further states that, “in human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities.” In other words, adaptation entails reducing vulnerability to anthropogenic climate change for communities around the globe. At the international level, it has been widely accepted that developed countries should take the responsibility of financing adaptation initiatives in Global South countries that have less capacity to cope with and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. This is especially so since, historically, the Global North has been the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. Recent agreements, such as the 2016 Paris Agreement, confirm this obligation of developed countries and call them to increase the level of financial assistance for adaptation. Yet, despite pledges to assist countries most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, there is a disparity between the effectiveness of adaptation initiatives financed by development aid and local needs on the ground.

Integrating local knowledge and practices

This disconnection from marginalized communities’ necessities in adaptation programs partly stems from a lack of inclusiveness in the framing of adaptation discourseAs Global North countries have taken the lead in instituting climate change policy and conceptualizing adaptation, their politics have not taken into consideration local and indigenous sources of information when shaping concepts like vulnerability and adaptation. The status quo rhetoric concerning climate change adaptation relies almost consistently on scientific, peer-reviewed publications, excluding other sources of information, such as local and indigenous knowledge and reports from other multilateral organizations.

Moreover, the misuse of the notions of ‘locality’ and ‘indigeneity’ has been exhibited in the field, sidelining the relevance of indigenous and local practices and knowledge. As a result, indigenous peoples and rural communities have been unable to contribute to and inform adaptation and development agendas that directly affect them. This in turn perpetuates long-run postcolonial approaches in development studies, missing the opportunity to suplement and incorporate valuable information and experiences from locals into adaptation initiatives. 

Adaptation strategies based on traditional knowledge have been identified in various communities around the globe. Studies have also showed that other coastal communities have robust local knoweldge to predict hydro-meteorological threats (hurricanes, tsunamis, flooding etc) through observations of their surroundings, suggesting the importance of incorporating it in disaster risk reduction. Research in Chiapas on a Zoque community revealed that the local perception of climate change has enabled people to alter the agricultural calender for planting and harvesting. The community had observed changes in the annual rainfall patterns and rising temperatures. A study in Muzarabani, Zimbabwe also showed that locals have in place prevention and mitigation strategies to prevent flooding to protect belongings, houses, crops, and to conserve water and food. These case studies illustrate how relevant local knoweldge and practices are within the field of adaptation, highlighting the importance of incorporating them in initiatives.

The importance of socio-economic factors

Furthermore, the framework within which climate change discourse is shaped exclude core indicators of precarity and needs. As adaptation and vulnerability are framed as primarily biophysical and geographic concepts,  socio-economic lenses are pushed to the background. As a result, this science-centric prioritization of ‘expert’ knowledge limits the insight that social and economic processes could otherwise provide in understanding adaptation needs. Yet, framing adaptation in all its complexity through a multi-dimensional approach is indispensable to addressing the socio-economic needs of vulnerable communities. Indeed, impacts of climate change events disrupt people’s livelihoods and affect virtually all dimensions of individuals’ ways of life. Results of adaptation initiatives have demonstrated the impacts of sidelining socio-economic indicators for vulnerability. For instance, in Malawi, research has shown that most aid-funded adaptation projects are located in physically vulnerable districts, while the poorest and most marginalized areas receive the least adaptation aid, despite still being exposed and affected by climate cahnge triggered weather events. 

The fallacies of a top-down approach

In addition, adaptation financing does not necessarily prioritize vulnerability in many cases. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we see that, while poorer countries receive more adaptation aid, there is no consistent relationship between physical vulnerability and aid. What then drives adaptation aid patterns? There is evidence that recipient merit and donor interest drive adaptation aid due to deeply entrenched social institutions and norms. Recipient merit is based on the level of political stability a country is experiencing, while variables such as trade or voting in the United Nations General Assembly seem to impact which country receives what amount of aid. In addition, adaptation projects also serve to strengthen those established sectors that have already received funding. Indeed, low transaction costs also affect financing flows, as donors are more likely to support adaptation initiatives in countries with which they have an ongoing aid relationship.

The top-down approach of adaptation initiatives goes beyond North versus South dynamics. In fact, developing countries’ national governments and powerful actors also play an important role in the outcomes of adaptation practice. An example of this is Bangladesh’s case, a country highly vulnerable to climate change. Bangladesh lies in a delta of three large rivers: the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna. Consequently, the country is at risk of flooding and tidal inundation on the coasts due to the accelerated melting of the Indian and Nepali Himalayan glaciers. Floods and other natural disasters like recurring cyclones cause severe damage to infrastructure, agriculture, and livelihoods, and are projected to worsen over the next few decades. 

Because of the country’s high exposure to climate change, the government in Bangladesh, along with development partners and private actors, has invested billions of dollars to manage disaster-related risks through aid. However, adaptation projects in the country have led to unintended consequences and the exacerbation of vulnerability for poor, marginalized communities. National policies have mainly oriented their efforts around enhancing economic development to protect wealthy landowners and shrimp farm industrialists, excluding landless and displaced peasants. In addition, households coping with disaster have delegated most of the additional workload to women or ethnic minorities. But the political-economic dynamics that have shaped the implementation of adaptation projects did not solely pertain to the regional sphere. Indeed, global processes, such as the funnelling of international donor money into national infrastructure projects, have diverted their attention away from the needs of local communities. 

Where do we go from here?

The case of Bangladesh offers a frightening account of the impacts of the disconnectedness in adaptation discourse between local adaptation needs of communities and actual practices of adaptation. To bring equity to climate governance and avoid problems like those of Bangladesh, there is a need to transform adaptation in both thought and action. Revisiting adaptation discourse should entail not only increasing inclusivity of various sources of knowledge and practices, but also prioritizing socio-economic factors of vulnerability as well. In doing so, such comprehensive conceptualization would better encompass the complexity of the challenge at hand, bringing us one step closer to effectively tackling climate change vulnerability.

Edited by Marshall Zuckerman

Photo credits: “Climate Change” by Riccardo Maria Mantero, published on September 14th, 2016, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. No changes were made.

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