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FEATURE: Global efforts to support climate adaptation must embrace long-term, socially-equitable solutions

Georgina Kemp and Bruce Currie-Alder of IDRC reflect on forthcoming opportunities and challenges for the newly-launched Global Commission on Adaptation.

The IPCC’s Special Report on the impacts of Global Warming of 1.5 is unequivocal: warming due to human activities will persist for centuries to millennia, and will continue to cause long term changes in the climate system. Adaptation to the impacts of climate change is already happening, and the report is clear that both incremental and transformational adaptation is required to respond to risks such as sea-level rise, drought and flood hazards. The report is also unequivocal that disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous peoples, and communities dependent on agricultural and coastal livelihoods are disproportionately at risk.

Within this context, over the next two years the Global Commission on Adaptation aims to elevate the visibility and political importance of climate adaptation and encourage bold solutions like smarter investments, new technologies and better planning to become more resilient to climate-related threats. Convened by the Netherlands and Canada, along with 15 other countries, the Commission was formally launched in October and will provide a vital input into Climate Summits planned for 2019 and 2020. In searching for scalable solutions and a compelling argument for global action, the Commission will encounter the need to balance the allure of short term solutions with the need to convey what it takes to pursue adaptation over the longer term in a way that fosters social equity.

In the developed world, discussions about adaptation to climate change can quickly focus on risks that can be quantified, often in financial terms, and experience with solutions based on tax incentives and hard infrastructure. For example, a national dialogue of the Commission, held recently in Ottawa, highlighted tax breaks for homeowners who flood-proof their basements as a key approach to promoting adaptation. There is a temptation to identify best practices that are quantifiable and easily explained to a wide audience, but these kinds of solutions risk eschewing considerations of social equity and are certainly not appropriate in many parts of the developing world, where vulnerability to climate change is highest.

Overcoming this temptation is one reason that IDRC will work with the Global Commission. For many people, climate change is already a reality and adaptation is part of their daily lives. Failed crops through prolonged drought mean hunger, and children out of school because school fees cannot be paid. In response, people join self-help groups, they migrate, they switch crops, they create community insurance funds that households can draw on during times of stress, they invest in shared rainwater tanks. In many instances, reciprocity is the glue behind these responses to climate change. One must understand this lived experience and be cautious of simple solutions such as fiscal incentives that assume responses based on self interest, not to mention homeownership and the relevance of tax breaks. In these contexts, building the capacity to collaborate and building on existing practices may be more relevant than solutions that are parachuted in from outside.

This is just one of the insights raised during the Commission’s dialogue in Ottawa. With Canadian and Dutch representatives from universities, non-governmental organisations, and cities around the table, the group shared a wide variety of experiences with adaptation responses that also improve social and gender equity. Some participants argued passionately for urgent action and focused on infrastructure and finance. Others highlighted the need for caution to ensure that climate action does not further increase inequality by favouring wealthier members of society disproportionately. Observers argued for humility in the Commission, and for a commitment to recognize that adaptation is a local endeavour that is already happening in many communities.

De-mystify adaptation and equity

The dialogue highlighted that we urgently need to de-mystify what it looks like to pursue climate adaptation and a more equitable world simultaneously. At least one example of where this is happening at scales that can make a difference is in the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) project. Research has shown that Botswana is a climate change hotspot: an increase of 1.5℃ to 2℃ globally will result in an increase of 2.2℃ to 2.8℃ locally. Botswana and other semi-arid countries in southern Africa are facing a future of intensified and longer droughts. And when the rains do fall, they are expected to be intense and lead to flash floods.

In these contexts it is essential to ask: what are the most effective entry points to support systemic responses to climate risk that prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable? This question is important to identify entry points for long-term change, 10 and 20 years into the future.

In Botswana, one answer is to strengthen district level planning. This is a scale at which communities can directly input their interests and aspirations into practical actions and investments. After integrating participatory assessment of vulnerability and risk into one such development plan, the ASSAR consortium was invited by the Office of the President to scale out this approach nationwide. Now all 16 districts across the country have trained district development officers and economic planners with the skills to work with their communities to manage climate risks and reach the most vulnerable, including women and girls. This success has been highlighted by the United Nations as a best practice in inclusive adaptation, an example for upcoming climate negotiations and National Adaptation Plans elsewhere.

Systemic, forward-looking approaches

There is a critical need for systemic, forward-looking approaches that seek impacts over longer time frames. In Botswana, the entry point of district planning offered one avenue for accelerating adaptation, one that is scalable across a country. It is also rooted where people live, engaging in the deeper work of enacting values such as gender equality as climate and development policy is developed. This is what scaling can look like.

The IDRC, and climate programmes we support such as CDKN, will work hand-in-hand with the commission over the next two years to support the effort to hold these kinds of ‘softer’ solutions up against harder infrastructure and financial solutions and treat both as essential and worthy of recognition. If the global community fails achieve this, then experience tells us that adaptation actions, investments and infrastructure are less likely to reach the most vulnerable to climate change.

 

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