We must urgently prioritise adaptation to address the climate emergency

Houses in char areas go under floodwater in Kurigram. The photo was taken at Madhabpur in Rajibpur upazila on July 17, 2020. Photo: Star


The recently-published report of Working Group-I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a renewed wakeup call on the urgency of taking action at the global level to address climate change. It has, with more accuracy and confidence, confirmed that at least one degree Celsius of temperature rise compared to pre-industrial level can be attributed to human activities. The recent climate events in North America, Europe and Asia, such as heat stress, wildfires and floods, are ample evidence of runaway climate change.

Against this, what is urgently needed is exponentially enhanced adaptation actions, particularly in the most vulnerable low-income countries. Obviously, COP26 to be held in Glasgow in just three months is expected to negotiate an ambitious programme on adaptation. The July ministerial meeting held in London reached an understanding on putting adaptation on a higher political plane while moving forward. It may be mentioned that for the last few years, framing of adaptation has been expanded by multidisciplinary thinking from the national to global levels, requiring global cooperation and multi-stakeholder engagement. Accordingly, this norm of globalising responsibility for adaptation is recognised in the Paris Agreement, as a “global goal” and a “global challenge” (Articles 7.1 and 7.2).

Although six years have passed since the adoption of the Agreement, not much progress has been made in operationalising the Global Center on Adaptation (GGA), nor is there any concrete roadmap to address this challenge. So, COP26 is expected to establish a clear process of defining the GGA going forward. Some agencies, including the Green Climate Fund, adopted the potential of transformational adaptation as a criteria for approving projects/programmes for funding. The challenge is how to achieve the transformational adaptation under the existing global socioeconomic order.

Transformational adaptation is often contrasted with incremental adaptation, as a continuum, beginning with reactive, coping strategies. The former calls for a system-wide change, a restructuring of human and ecological systems as an integrated whole, with a focus on sustainability of natural resources and man-made artefacts. This grounds human actions in spaces/places in the natural world and questions the effectiveness of existing systems, social injustices and power imbalances. But incremental adaptation happens within the existing socioeconomic structure, which works with the dominant actors without conflicts with prevailing interests and values. The proponents of this model argue for a slow process to effect change while working within the system, as the national or global dynamics do not support a radical change in the system, which is founded on the neoliberal paradigm that values market justice more than procedural and distributive justice.

Therefore, it can be argued that as a pragmatic approach, incremental adaptation can be a vehicle for transformational adaptation (despite being a slow process), but only if it proceeds as part of a well-planned, long term strategy under current and future climate change. However, the process must be dynamic, without being locked into the inertia against change. For this to happen, there must be a few fundamental elements.

The first is locally-led adaptation (LLA). We may recall that the now-defunct Global Commission on Adaptation had suggested embracing the LLA track for all the right reasons. A rich body of evidence already establishes the efficacy of LLA beyond contestation, as adaptation is inherently local or regional, because climate impacts differ spatially, across regions and across socioeconomic groups in any country. So, adaptation actions must remain bottom-up, with national governments providing for a facilitative policy-institutional framework.

In fact, LLA can be regarded as a shift in adaptation paradigm, meaning a shift in fundamental approaches and assumptions in existing practices. If we really mean it as a paradigm shift, we must ask upfront the questions of Who, What, How, etc. in adaptation policy domain. It may be mentioned that adaptation is viewed often from a “technocratic” perspective, for investment decisions, to build climate-proof resilient infrastructure. But this view does not address power and political dynamics, which is needed for a holistic perspective of adaptation that addresses the underlying causes of vulnerability, such as poverty, marginalisation, structural inequalities, economic, political and social disempowerment, etc. This latter lens is about transformational adaptation. However, available literature shows that even now, overwhelming practices in adaptation are driven not by local actors, but by those living far away from the locales or places increasingly pounded by extreme climate events as part of the new normal. Without a fundamental shift from hitherto centralised approaches to LLA, even incremental adaptation cannot be achieved sustainably.

In this effort, adequate funding for gradual implementation of LLA can make a difference. However, only three percent of the least developed countries’ (LDCs) adaptation finance needs are now met with global support. Therefore, the following need to be agreed upon at COP26: First, scaling-up of adaptation funding to 50 percent of climate finance from the current level of only 20 percent globally. This had been pledged more than a decade ago by the developed countries and global funding agencies. Second, as pledged by the LDC Vision 2050, at least 70 percent of climate finance needs to be delivered to local communities, as opposed to the less than 10 percent that is currently reaching them. Third, COP26 must agree on a programme to improve access to adaptation finance, particularly for low-income nations, which includes reducing procedural complexities. Fourth, poor communities must get adaptation funding only on a grant basis, against the increasing trend of loan provision. Fifth, COP26 must agree that the five percent share of funds generated from market mechanism activities under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement is channeled to the Adaptation Fund. Finally, the expedited direct access modalities (EDA) initiated earlier by the Adaptation Fund and now the Green Climate Fund must scale devolution of funding to sub-national and local community levels so that programmes can be designed and implemented directly by local actors, with resources under their direct control. This internationally-supported funding must be complemented by national and local resources.

The successful implementation of LLA requires a change in capacity building at all levels, focusing particularly on local actors including elected local representatives, local government officials, local entrepreneurs and community leaders. There should also be a focus on building local youth and women leadership. We may recall that earlier, supply-driven, short-term project-based, foreign consultancy-led capacity building under donor-supported Technical Assistance programmes did not work well. So, we must shift towards a demand-driven mode in capacity building. What we really need is a transformative capacity building model for transformational adaptation. This is the collective local agency to initiate social and economic transformation that gradually moves away from unsustainable and disempowering trajectories, towards a new social-ecological trajectory that grounds adaptation actions within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of both man-made and natural capital.

Finally, as experience in adaption interventions is relatively new, a learning-by-doing approach has to be taken. This is where action research is extremely important, which integrates local/indigenous and scientific knowledge and methods. In this process, big data will not do, as national and global aggregate data mask spatial, socioeconomic and gender differentiation. The use of sub-national and local level data for measuring the process of monitoring, evaluation and learning would be the most appropriate when it comes to locally-led adaptation.

Mizan R Khan is Deputy Director and Saleemul Huq is Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at Independent University, Bangladesh, (IUB).

Date:  Aug 24, 2021