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OPINION: Climate action – just do it


Mairi Dupar, CDKN’s Global Public Affairs Coordinator, reports from a lively discussion at Resilient Cities 2014 on how to win allies for climate compatible development at the local level.

“Just do it.”

“The power of demonstration.”

“Show everybody and get them talking about it.”

“Seeing is believing.”

These were some of the top messages from a workshop hosted this week by CDKN and ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability in answer to the question: “How do you get diverse stakeholders involved in local action on climate change? What is your selling point?”

CDKN and ICLEI convened partners from cities around the world to talk about how they have created local initiatives for climate compatible development. The discussion involved around ten CDKN-supported initiatives involved in our subnational learning programme, together with around 40-50 other participants at Resilient Cities 2014.

One message emerged loud and clear: if one or a few local climate champions can get a small climate initiative started, and they can demonstrate immediate, positive benefits in people’s lives, then others will be convinced. Success will breed success.

The key is to start off small and to show others that change is possible. Actions speak louder than words.

We have approaches that work

Marielle Dubbeling of RUAF Foundation discussed her work to promote urban and peri-urban agriculture in Sri Lanka’s densely populated Western Province (now the subject of a CDKN Inside Story).  The team of external experts and policy makers from Kesbewa district government have worked with communities to reclaim and revitalise abandoned paddy lands in the city. They are growing fruit and vegetables and saline-resistant rice varieties that tolerate increasing saline intrusion and water scarcity, help meet local nutritional needs, and reduce ‘food miles’.

“Doing the monitoring to show the benefits was a key selling point. We could let the results speak for themselves” she said. Now the initiative is being taken up at province level.

In practical terms, “just getting on with it” means making the most of existing adaptation practices. Piero Pelizzaro of Bologna, Italy  said his mantra is: “Keep it simple. We are introducing green infrastructure such as green roofs using existing technologies, not thinking we have to install a futuristic technology now.” His team is using technologies and techniques that are low-cost and already available and looking at how to strengthen existing building codes with adaptation measures. His approach is supported by the recent findings of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report which finds that human society has the adaptation tools at its disposal to deal with the committed (inevitable) climate changes expected in the next two or three decades – if only we would use them.

Of course, local climate champions needn’t feel like they’re alone.  There is an emerging body of learning on climate compatible development from which to draw inspiration and practical advice.

When it comes to climate adaptation, in particular, measures tend to be distinctly suited to each locale, but ‘principles for good adaptation’ do exist, said Sarah Birch of ICLEI Africa. ”Adaptation measures are not transferable. But principles can be transferred from one place to another, and can be customised to each place,” she said.

But what if the will to embrace climate action isn’t there?  What of the many towns and cities where the impetus for climate action is still completely lacking?

One way of looking at it is to analyse the complex forces that shape prevailing thinking. There is a large and fascinating literature on what leads to ‘tipping points’ in global norms – when, say, wanton climate pollution goes from being de rigeur to being socially or politically unacceptable. (There is plenty of recent scholarship on how states and markets interact to create tipping points on environmental issues, like this article by Irja Vormedal).

What’s the trigger?

There’s also the practitioner’s viewpoint. Participants reflected that the negative impacts of climate change (e.g., floods, extreme heat, rising seas) as well as the negative impacts of polluting activity (e.g., traffic jams, smog and public health problems) are becoming more pervasive.  Dealing with these problems is increasingly entwined with the everyday business of growth and development.

So, to some extent, the present impacts of climate pollution and of climate change are creating new climate champions anyway (whether those people realise it immediately or not). Decision-makers could be tackling traffic congestion, frequent flood damage, or increased incidence of asthma in the community, and in so doing, adopting cleaner and more resilient development solutions.

“Most climate change policies we’ve seen in Latin American cities didn’t start as climate change policies,” said Daniel Ryan of FARN. “They had political or social triggers.”

“Climate change can become a burning issue when it’s related to other pressing social priorities, said Ali Cambray, CDKN’s Head of Country Support.

“One example might be the way that obesity and healthcare costs are mounting in the Middle East and North Africa. Actions that happen to be good for climate change, like encouraging exercise and healthy living, can be good for solving those problems, too.”

It’s all about framing issues in a way that shows ‘local benefits’, said Dr Ryan. There’s no arguing with that.

The CDKN-ICLEI event at Resilient Cities 2014 saw the launch of the organisations’ joint paper, Close to home: Subnational strategies for climate compatible development, which draws together the many lessons from the subnational learning programme.

In addition, CDKN, ICLEI and partners launched:

Integrating climate change concerns into disaster management planning: The case of Gorakhpur, India

Advancing green growth in the tourism sector: The case of Hue, Vietnam

Catalysing sustainable tourism: The case of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Addressing heat-related health risks in urban India: Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan

A local vision of climate adaptation: Participatory urban planning in Mozambique

Local approaches to harmonising climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies: Lessons from India 

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