There is no doubt that climate change is one of the most formidable and complex issues facing us today. There are many dimensions to it – scientific, political, economic, social, ethical, ethical, moral, cultural, sectoral etc – and it spatial and temporal scope is very wide. But that notwithstanding, the discourse on climate change is changing from whether climate change is happening to what needs to be done to deal with its far-reaching implications. Many people want to know what they can and must do to combat the impacts of climate change on their communities. In a recent forum, prominent media personality in Africa asked:
If we are to do more work – and we must do more work, what are your views on what we should do, particularly as we face the reality of climate change?
This question is pertinent and central to climate action especially because the answers to it would determine whether the actions taken strengthen communities’ resilience to climate change, weaken it or maintain the status quo. I reflect on this question and provide some answer for the benefit of all. Just like the question itself, the answers assume that there is consensus that we must act to deal climate change, and that there is the will to do so.
There are two broad approaches to climate action namely, mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation entails reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with the objective of limiting the rate/amount of global warming especially as a result of human activities. The current global target agreed in the Paris Agreement is to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. So, mitigation has a clear goal: to reduce so much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere so as to limit warming by so much. How we do this is also fairly straightforward, although I don’t in any way suggest it is (would be) easy. It involves behaviour or lifestyle change by individuals and corporate entities, which could be enabled by appropriate policies and technologies. For example, using energy efficient appliances, choosing ‘clean’ modes of transport, practising good habits to reduce amount of energy consumed, and using cleaner energy. There are also some suggestions for climate engineering involving removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – such as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) – and prevention of sun’s heat from entering the Earth’s atmosphere through, for example, solar radiation management (SRM) techniques. Note that climate engineering – popularly but incorrectly known as geoengineering – is a contentious topic with many ethical dimensions that need to be considered.
Adaptation on the other hand entails taking appropriate actions to deal with the inevitable impacts of climate change. Adaptation is much more complex and fluid compared to mitigation. This is partly because countries and communities will be (and some already are) affected by climate change impacts differently. For example, the risks and opportunities for a coastal community would be different from an inland community’s and highlands communities from lowlands communities. Arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) (will) have their own peculiar set of climate risks to contend with too. The risks and opportunities will even differ from one (coastal, inland, ASAL, etc) community to another. The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are be more vulnerable – especially because of their exposure to the oceanic environment – compared to, say, other developing countries.
Simply, the environment in which a community lives will respond differently to the changing climate, and thus bring varied risks and opportunities. In addition, countries and communities have different coping and response capacities and technologies, some of which they may have developed and honed over a long time. Furthermore, communities have diverse beliefs and cultures that may enable or inhibit certain adaptation measures that work elsewhere. Basically, there is no single behaviour, lifestyle pattern, technology or measure that can be used by everyone in adaptation to climate change. People must therefore determine their most-appropriate and/or preferred adaptation measures depending on their unique circumstances.
However, in general, I think there six cyclical things/steps that everyone must do/take in determining what the most appropriate adaptation action for them could be. These are determining identity; assessing the risks; developing bespoke solutions; implementing the solutions; evaluating the solution against outcomes; then repeat.
1. Define your identity – Who are you?
Defining who you are as a country or community should be the first thing in determining what you can or should do about climate change. This is important because it lays a foundation for everything else including the kind of resources that might be available to undertake your climate response actions. You might identify yourselves as a coastal, pastoralist, agricultural, agropastoral, fishing, indigenous, hunting-and-gathering community etc, or a small island developing state (SIDS), least-developed, developing, middle-income, or high-income (developed) country. This can go even further to include subgroups in a community such as women, children, persons with disability, elderly, refugee, land owners etc, especially when considering a project or intervention for a specific climate risk/opportunity.
2. Assess the climate risks/opportunities – What risks or opportunities does climate change bring to you?
This requires a risk, vulnerability, capacity assessment or some sort of a climate SWOT analysis based on who you identify as. For example, if you are a pastoralist community in arid or semi-arid lands in a least developed country, you may be faced with increasing droughts and lack of pasture for your livestock, and if a coastal community in a similar country, you may be faced with floods, rising sea levels and or diminishing fish catch as the oceans/seas temperatures change. You may benefit from resources including climate finance such as the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) that are specifically created for you. (This website provides updates on several multilateral climate funds). You may also have developed valuable, unique techniques and coping mechanisms over time that need to be refined and upscaled.
3. Develop bespoke solutions – What are your options?
So, you are a coastal community facing rising sea level. Your solutions could include for example building sea walls or dunes or using vegetation (like planting mangroves) as defence against the rising sea levels. You could also retreat – i.e. move farther away from the ocean shores towards the inlands or change the land use pattern.
If you are an agropastoral community facing droughts and unpredictable rainfall patterns, your options could include building weirs, sand and/or earth dams, or other reservoirs to harvest water when the rains finally come. You could also plant the more drought-resistant crops, and use weather information services to determine when and what to plant to increase chances of our crops maturing to harvest. You may also consider improved methods of harvesting and storing animal fodder to feed your animals during times of scarcity. Basically, your options will depend largely on the risks/opportunities you have, which in turn depend on your identity.
4. Implement the solutions
You now know who you are, you understand the risks and opportunities you face and have developed bespoke solutions. The next step is, of course, implementing them. Decisions would need to be made of how to implement them. For example, some of the risks a community faces can better be addressed at the community level – e.g. building dams and weirs. But others – such as farming and harvesting water for domestic use – are household-level decisions. Some communities might have the resources already to do this, while others might have to find ways of mobilising resources – internally or externally – to implement their chosen solution.
5. Evaluate the solution against outcomes – Are the solutions increasing your resilience to climate change?
One of the most important, yet often ‘forgotten’ step, is evaluating the outcomes of the implemented solutions. Evaluating adaptation interventions is challenging for the same reasons adaptation is complex – and this could be why evaluation is usually ‘forgotten’. But evaluating climate actions is necessary to help us understand if and how well the interventions we are implementing are addressing our need – in terms of managing the risk we face and exploiting the opportunities climate change brings. Evaluation thus helps us determine whether we are becoming more resilient to the risks or if we need to do more. Sometimes, we might have to do something totally different based on the outcomes of our interventions. This can be made clearer if we do a good evaluation of climate interventions.
There are many uncertainties in the climate system, and these also affect the level of certainty in the impacts and risks a community faces and the opportunities available . At times, the risks may have been underestimated or overestimated in step 2 above. Sometimes, the scale of the solution developed in step 3 above may have a mismatch with the established level of risk and vulnerability. But often it is how the solutions are implemented that determines the outcomes of climate adaptation interventions. Whatever the case, a proper evaluation may point us to the right direction and help us in the next cycle of planning and implementation.
Once you have carried out steps 1 to 5, it is important to repeat the entire cycle again depending on the evaluation of the outcomes. Some may argue that there is no need of step 1 because the identity largely remains the same. There is some truth in this perspective, but this is not entirely correct. Depending on the timescale among other things, some former least-developed economies may have grown or will grow into developing or middle-income countries. Some communities may have shifted their socioeconomic activities from pastoralism to agriculture or vice versa. Essentially, some aspect of a community’s or country’s identity is likely to change during the implementation of some climate change interventions. This is important to consider in the next round of planning and implementation of climate actions to make them more relevant and useful.