The challenge of adapting to a changing climate
This week, the world’s attention has been turned to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the largest global environmental summit for the last twenty years.
One of the seven critical issues on the Rio+20 agenda is disasters. Specifically, discussions are centring on how people and places can build disaster resilience, withstand impacts and recover quickly.
In the face of increased risk of climate-related shocks and stressors, people and societies around the world need to find ways of adapting successfully. This week IDS is publishing a new report with Irish NGO Trócaire, which highlights some of the issues and challenges in climate change adaptation.
Shaping Strategies: factors and actors in climate change adaptation is the result of a two-year research project into the climate vulnerability of communities in four countries: Kenya, Malawi, Honduras and Bolivia. Among others, our research found key common challenges around:
- Trade-offs between coping and adapting
While the climate is changing, people are taking a number of actions to cope with and adapt to changes. But how successful are these strategies in building long term resilience? The report highlights how there are trade-offs between short and long term household level strategies. For example, we found that growing more drought tolerant crop varieties may alleviate some of the stress on livelihoods in the short term, but may also push farmers to less flexible livelihood strategies in the face of an uncertain future. The challenge is thus to help farmers adapt now, while also increasing their future flexibility in livelihood strategies.
- Availability of options is not the same as ability to adapt
There are large variations in households’ ability to take advantage of new opportunities for climate adaptation, even if they are available locally. These range from who people know, what they know, to what resources they have access to, and also how well external adaptation support is targeted. Changing climates may not only introduce new risks, but also new social differences.
- Expanding the spaces for adaptation
Adaptation actions by individuals and households are ultimately taking place within the ‘spaces’ defined by institutional structures at national and sub-national levels, such as access to land, credit and information. Adaptation challenges cannot therefore be solved simply by giving farmers more choices locally, unless structures at higher levels also follow suit. The challenge is to ensure that structures creating vulnerability are removed and that government policies are supportive and coherent across sectors.
Importantly, while many of the challenges for adaptation are not new, the structures and funding to tackle climate change are. To overcome adaptation challenges, Rio+20 is an opportunity to bring renewed attention to the need to ensure that we learn from and build on people’s knowledge and adaptation actions, and that we tackle the causes – rather than the symptoms – of social inequality and vulnerability to risk.
Image credit: Petterik Wiggers / Panos
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