Transformative adaptation

06 June 2012

CAP_45_PAG_05_WEBCommunities responding to climate change

Most adaptation strategies focus on coping with climate change effects. But adaptation involves much more than simply putting a plaster over a scratch – it requires transformative thinking and change.

The message from scientists is clear: climate change is here and will pose a major challenge in the coming decades. Even substantial measures taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, industry and other activities cannot reverse the damage from emissions in previous years. Indeed, scientists have warned of the dangers that can arise from even a one-degree increase in the average global temperature. Human activity has already irreversibly changed some ecosystems, and further damage is likely. It is not clear exactly what changes the future holds, but predictions generally agree that many parts of the world will be exposed to changes such as higher temperatures, sea-level rise, more frequent and intense natural hazards and changing rainfall patterns. It is therefore necessary to think about how to adjust not only to these specific changes, but to the new uncertainty about our future climate.

The devastating effects of climate change and its estimated costs has pushed climate change adaptation to the forefront as an appealing and tangible way of minimising both the damage and the cost of climate change. Climate change adaptation is the process of adjusting to new conditions, stresses and natural hazards resulting from a changing climate. The main problem is that most of us cannot visualise how to move from adaptation concept to practice, because there are few concrete examples to follow.

Many countries are grappling with the question of how to adapt. They are uncertain about what adaptation implies exactly. Does it mean relocating entire communities living along riverbanks, in coastal zones or mountains? Does it mean building sea-walls as a defence against sea-level rise and storm surges? Or does it mean restructuring national institutions, policies and regulations on disaster risk reduction and natural resource management?

Each of these approaches has financial, social, environmental and political implications, and following several approaches at once is usually financially and practically impossible. Deciding which strategy to select is a major question; how to actually design and implement it is a second major challenge.

Most attempts by governments, non-governmental organisations and development practitioners to identify adaptation options start with an impact assessment. This followed the realisation that climate change was going to have harmful consequences, and that humans and ecosystems would need to adjust to the changes in order to avoid or minimise these consequences.

It has become clear over the past three decades, however, that the catalyst and solution are complexly related – in other words, we cannot make adjustments and also continue with the lifestyle and behavioural patterns that are contributing to climate change. A far deeper change in society is necessary, as will be discussed in detail at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development on 20–22 June 2012. This line of thinking, substantiated by research on the risk and vulnerability associated with hazards and disasters, has revealed that adaptation involves much more than simply putting a plaster over a scratch – it requires transformative thinking and change.

Impacts versus vulnerability approach
There has been an ongoing struggle between at least two perspectives on adaptation since the emergence of the first guidelines on impact, vulnerability and adaptation. The tension is between those who see adaptation to be the suite of actions that fill the gap between life-as-usual and life impacted by climate change (for example, building small irrigation systems for a growing population of farmers in Ethiopia to cope with reduced rainfall and water availability), and those who emphasise actions that address the reasons why people are affected by climate change (for example, by reallocating people with livelihoods in climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, to sectors that are not as sensitive to climate change, such as education).

These approaches have been described as impacts versus vulnerability. Previous analyses suggest that international climate change policy is designed around the impacts approach. But they also suggest that a vulnerability approach is more sustainable for developing countries because it aims to strengthen and invigorate development processes to deal with present and future climate situations.

The vulnerability approach explicitly acknowledges that the current development paradigm is inequitable, environmentally damaging and overly focused on economic growth and infrastructure expansion – in short, unsustainable and unlikely to ever successfully draw people out of poverty. Focusing exclusively on the looming impact of climate change is to implicitly accept this paradigm, and it betrays an unwillingness to acknowledge the need for transformative action. But transformative action would force us to question the dominant, institutionally ingrained development paradigm. A small but growing community of scholars is now arguing that adaptation must embody this urgent need to rethink existing development approaches.

What does adaptation mean?
Adaptation is a response to past impacts, but it also anticipates future ones. In this sense, adaptation can be a reactive and spontaneous process – a response to past impacts depending on the available capacity (so-called ‘adaptive capacity’). This kind of response is usually considered autonomous because it does not include explicit planning or strategy.

Adaptation can also be strategic and planned – a response to both past and projected impacts. Both autonomous and planned adaptation may require additional outside support. This is why we now talk about adaptation policies, plans and projects, which are supposed to facilitate the move towards adaptation on all levels – from the community and regional to the multi-country levels. The goal of the adaptation process itself is to enhance people’s resilience to climate change. Resilience is the ability of people to absorb shocks and quickly return to a prior state of well-being after a disturbance. 1

Originally, theoretical works on adaptation assumed that planned adaptation would be built on pre-existing, autonomous adaptive capacity. But this capacity is not always present, and frequently it is connected to much broader development questions. For example, it is the difference between improving water storage capacity and access to markets for smallholder farmers in the Himalayas – which could ‘buy time’ but probably not serve as a permanent solution – versus recognising that the fragile smallholder livelihoods in mountain areas have physical, socio-cultural, economic and political limits to how much climate change they can absorb. They thus need to rethink their livelihood choices rather than simply create additional buffers on their existing strategies.

As a result, decision makers have been unable to assess how much adaptation needs to be planned under given circumstances, nor can they predict to what extent people will be able to adapt on their own. Furthermore, existing capacity is usually only sufficient to enable people to cope with adversity for a limited time. Coping approaches have been shown to undermine opportunities for adaptation in the future, and as such not all coping strategies should be used as a first step towards adaptation. A typical example is when people sell off assets such as livestock or even portions of their land to overcome a drought that only lasts a season or two, leaving them much worse off and unable to deal with an ongoing or permanent shift towards less precipitation.

Based on the physical impacts research, we now know that not everyone will be affected by climate change at the same rate, frequency or magnitude. Some parts of the world are more likely to be affected than others. Broadly speaking, this includes areas close to the equator, mountainous environments, coastal zones and small islands. This means that not everyone is equally exposed since their geographic locations differ.

Social science research has also taught us that people are not equally sensitive to the impacts of climate change. A wealthy factory owner living in a coastal zone in Thailand is not as likely to experience the impacts of climate change in the same way as a farmer living in the same area. For the factory owner, climate change may mean the end of one business and the need to enter into another type of business, but for an otherwise unskilled farmer, it may mean the end of his livelihood and state of well-being.

Therefore, people are not equally vulnerable to climate change, and their adaptive capacity is not equal. Blanket policies designed to help people adapt may assist some but ignore others. Furthermore, policies that help some might inadvertently (or even advertently) expose others even more to the impacts of climate change. This adds another dimension of complexity to planning adaptation.

Unplanned adaptation
CAP_45_PAG_07_WEB Photo credit: Reuters/Stringer Shangai

Autonomous adaptation usually brings to mind adaption at the village level. People are generally not passive victims without incentive to improve their lives. To the extent that they are able, people take action to reduce their exposure and sensitivity to natural hazards, such as floods and droughts. But faced with increasingly adverse climate conditions, many rural people’s livelihoods are being directly threatened, because many rural dwellers depend on agriculture for their immediate survival.

Many creative responses to climate variability and change have been documented around the world, but these responses are rarely designed to have a long-term positive impact. Most of these responses focus on agriculture, which in many places is a sector already experiencing severe climate variability problems, high competition, small plot sizes, degraded soils and polluted water. And climate change projections are only making their future look bleaker.

At the local level, people can be highly sensitive to other changes around them over which they have little or no power, including policies on land tenure, resource access and markets. Responses to climate variability, change and stress often depend on external opportunities, conditions or institutions that may themselves be highly sensitive or temporary.

One of the alternative options to climate-sensitive traditional crops in El Salvador (maize and beans), for example, is to use locally grown cashew trees to produce jams and package and sell the nuts. But this requires the capacity to generate the products, a permanent link to the market (through middle-men or directly with the right networks), and continuous technical and financial support to the producers to stay abreast of market demand. Without this capacity, cashew becomes a less attractive alternative and eventually will not offer more security than traditional crops, which can at least supply household food needs.

Moving from livelihood coping strategies based on risk aversion to a process of actually adjusting to a changed climate requires the right enabling environment to allow responses to take root and develop sustainably. National policies and institutions may have an important impact on livelihood choices at the local level, depending on how these are devolved down from the national level. At the same time, if local needs and concerns are communicated upwards, they can inform national agenda-setting, which can in turn ensure that local priorities are reflected in broader decision making.

If local concerns are ignored, or if no channel is available to enable dissemination to different levels, national-level policies can be inconsistent with local needs, and even drive vulnerability to climate variability. National policies often do not take into account or build on existing capacity to respond. Thus, even if there are responses at a local level, they may influence the real cause of vulnerability. This consequently traps people in a vicious cycle of having to cope without helping them onto the path of adaptation.

The key to transitioning from a survival mode to adaptation lies in reducing people’s vulnerability. Empirical evidence from many places around the world suggests that the underlying causes of vulnerability – such as climate-related stress, hazards and change – need to be addressed in order to expedite an adaptation process. Vulnerability is closely linked with development, and is influenced by many factors, some of which cannot be affected by community-level actions. Nor will all the actions taken on a local level to adjust to new situations necessarily work in existing policy and market contexts.

Crop choice, for example, is closely linked to climatic factors such as precipitation and temperature, but in the case of cash crops the market, which is swayed by people’s dietary preferences, plays a key role. Climatic conditions may be a consideration in crop selection, but crops also have to have a market value and be culturally acceptable. The ability to transport crops to the market is key to accessing cash income, but transport depends on the existence and conditions of roads.

The autonomous adaptation process is therefore not entirely unplanned, and certainly not unconscious. People explicitly decide what to prioritise, and this shows that climate change is not necessarily the deciding factor regarding people’s well-being. It also shows that development processes which are not sensitive to climate change lie at the heart of both spontaneous and planned adaptation.

Planned adaptation
Planned adaptation is often associated with national-level policy making because adaptation as a policy objective originates in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Specifically, planned adaptation is about strategically reducing or avoiding the impact of climate change, either as a reaction to what is being experienced, or in anticipation of what is expected to come.

Planned adaptation, however, cannot stand apart from other policies, plans, programmes and institutions that deal with climate-relevant issues such as agriculture, human security or environmental protection. If such initiatives are not aligned with climate change adaptation objectives, they instead risk increasing exposure and sensitivity to climate change.

Prioritising intensive agriculture that relies heavily on irrigation, for example, may provide high returns in the short run, even in countries where water resources will be threatened by climate change. But in the medium to long term, when water resources become scarce and unreliable, this choice will have been a wasted investment. It will leave people demanding new alternatives as they will be unable to rely on previous arrangements, and will lack the skills or means to adopt new ways.

Because sectoral policies can influence both vulnerability and vulnerability reduction, it is important to see a country’s entire development model from a wider perspective. Aspects need to be identified that are likely to make people more vulnerable, as well as those aspects with the greatest potential to enhance resilience to climate change. And policies need to simultaneously ensure that development objectives aimed at improving well-being, education, health and security are not compromised in the process.

Many people are not well-adjusted to current climate variability, so the adaptation process must not only enable people to absorb shocks (allow people to become resilient) but also move beyond existing states of underdevelopment. The most effective way of meeting development objectives without increasing people’s vulnerability or compromising their well-being is by integrating climate change policies into core national development plans. This type of integration is known as mainstreaming.

Focusing on planned adaptation at the national level, however, is insufficient to ensure that people at the community level move towards adaptation. Frequently, national-level attempts to formalise adaptation policy do not integrate parallel local processes for addressing risk and development sufficiently. For instance, most countries have separate government bodies for addressing disasters and climate change (as an environmental issue in environment ministries).

Reducing the risk of disaster should focus on the same actions as adaptation to climate change, namely preparation and prevention. Yet, disaster units typically concentrate on cleaning up after major floods, droughts or storms. There is evidence in countries such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia that disaster impact measures are making it even more difficult to adapt to climate change because they resettle people to locations that introduce new hazards or complicate life in other ways, or set up food distribution systems that undermine local food markets.

A community focus can help make a direct connection between addressing development needs and enhancing adaptive capacity. For this reason, the local level should be considered an important entry point for adaptation. Nevertheless, adaptation, disaster risk reduction and development cannot be planned separately because they are inherently connected.

Local-level and community adaptation
Local-level adaptation, and particularly community-based adaptation, is an area of growing interest, in part because the benefits of adaptation will most obviously manifest themselves on the local level. Adaptation at the local level has clear links with development, as many of the actions that are considered necessary for households and individuals to adapt to climate change are also high on the sustainable development agenda.

Box_CBACommunity-based adaptation is defined as any adaptation project that takes place in a community, and which is based on its local adaptive capacity. Although many communities are used to dealing with climate variability, their capacity to deal with climate change is typically much more limited, and they need to explicitly plan their responses to new or more intense climate conditions. Most of the emphasis of community-based efforts is on building additional adaptive capacity.

Studies of community-level responses to climate variability have shown that although these responses have taken place within a community, they have not been occurring in isolation from the broader policy context or the community’s market environment. 2 Not only do communities depend on the wider political, institutional and financial context, but they are also influenced by other communities and cities. For example, traditional methods of diversifying income and providing insurance for difficult times such as seasonal migration depend on labour demands elsewhere. In this case, the availability of jobs outside the community is the enabling condition for migration to be a viable response to climate variability and change.

The concept of ‘community’ is often used to refer to a homogenous collection of people whose shared interests, resources or beliefs create a common identity. In reality, communities can be composed of many different groups, whose interests may conflict when shared resources are under pressure. These groups may differ ethnically or religiously and call the same place home, but they may also have different functions within that society.

Community-based adaptation, therefore, has to take into account two important dimensions: the link between the community and its wider context; and the diversity of the common unit. A successful response to drought by one group in a community may increase another group’s vulnerability to it. Take one of the various communities in the Himalayas, for example, where water is scarce. One of these communities may decide to favour agricultural water needs over household water needs (such as water storage and water diversion). This decision will benefit some people because it meets their income or subsistence requirements, while others who are not farmers will have less water available for drinking or cooking.

Broader policy and market processes have different implications for different members of a community because everyone’s assets are distributed differently. Those with more physical assets may not need a strong social network to fall back on when crops fail. This mosaic of conditions, assets and opportunities determines a community’s collective adaptive capacity.

Looking at this collective capacity will not give a good picture of how to build adaptive capacity, however, which comes down to individuals and households. This is why adaptation will vary from household to household and ultimately from community to community. Consequently, strategies that successfully reduce one community’s vulnerability to climate variability and change may not work at all in another, even if the communities appear similar on the surface.

So far, community-based adaptation has been an important platform for explaining the strong links between adaptation and development. But successful ‘community-based’ adaptation may not function without the internal dynamics and external enabling conditions that are unique to each community. Imposing adaptation plans on the local level that are designed top-down runs the risk of excluding some or all members of a community, providing little benefit or, worse, engendering conditions that increase vulnerability to climate change. Factors that enable adaptation in one village could be the source of a neighbouring village’s vulnerability.

Although community-based adaptation has received a lot of attention, we should not forget the broader context of reducing vulnerability. Adaptation restricted to the community level is unlikely to make significant headway in strengthening people’s resilience in the long run as long as the ‘ right’ type of development approaches are not in place.

Adaptation therefore needs to be considered on multiple levels simultaneously: in all sectors, from public works to health, in addition to the more obvious sectors of urban planning, water and agriculture. National adaptation planners must also be aware of the local dynamics at play in order to help align the enabling environment with the capacity that is already available in the communities.

From a practical perspective, this implies enhanced dialogue between actors on different levels. It means recognizing that transformation is necessary, as well as time and effort to rethink development trajectories in order for the transformation to take place. And it also means accepting that patience is needed for learning and shifts in attitudes.

Adaptation can only happen at the local level if people matter to governments, as is the case for many other development priorities. The bottom line is that if we really take the lessons of sustainable development to heart and apply them in our policies, plans and projects as well as our attitudes and education systems, we will make great headway in reducing people’s vulnerability to climate change, while also making gains in human well-being and the health of our ecosystems.

Pradhan, N.S., Khadgi, V.R., Schipper, E.L.F., Kaur, N. and Geoghegan, T. (2012) Role of Policy and Institutions in Local Adaptation to Climate Change – Case studies on responses to too much and too little water in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Kathmandu: ICIMOD.

Schipper, E.L.F. (2010) Key Concepts: What is Adaptation to Climate Change, and Why Do We Need It? Available at

Schipper, E.L.F. (2009) Policy brief, Stockholm Environment Institute. Expanding the Community of Community-Based Adaptation. Available at


1 Thus, only those who enjoy a certain degree of well-being can be said to have resilience, which implies that the very poor need to attain a certain level of social and economic development in order to be able to achieve resilience to climate change.
2 See for instance Pradhan, N.S., Khadgi, V.R., Schipper, E. L. F., Kaur, N. and Geoghegan, T. (2012) Role of Policy and Institutions in Local Adaptation to Climate Change – Case studies on responses to too much and too little water in the Hindu Kush Himalayas. Kathmandu: ICIMOD.

About the author

Lisa Schipper is senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and leads a research group on vulnerability and adaptation. Her research focuses on the links between adaptation and development, particularly local-level adaptation, methods and tools for adaptation and vulnerability assessment, and examining key concepts in the adaptation and vulnerability discourse. Her fieldwork has been in Latin America, East Africa, South and Southeast Asia. Schipper is currently lead author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II.

Transformative adaptation E. Lisa F. Schipper Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden
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