climate change social justice

Guest post: 5 reasons to talk about adaptation

By Dr. Morgan Phillips – Co-Director, The Glacier Trust

Many in the environmental and climate movement remain reluctant to talk about climate change adaptation. This is slowly changing, but if you are still sceptical, it pays to remember that the adaptation story is not, and does not have to be, in opposition to the mitigation story. The urgent need to lower emissions, preserve forests, and develop new models of democracy and economics, is as much a part of the adaptation story as it is the mitigation story. Mitigation makes adaptation easier, and adaptation makes mitigation easier; they are partners.

Through our Great Adaptations project, The Glacier Trust is making the case for adaptation as an essential comrade to mitigation and other key social and ecological causes. Regardless of what is thought of it, adaptation is going to happen – it is already happening. The pressing need now is to enable it to happen in ways that progress, rather than hinder, our attempts to mitigate and advance other causes. Talking about adaptation is the essential first step in achieving this, it cannot be allowed to go on happening in the shadows. If the climate movement continues to be agnostic about adaptation, if it fails to tell adaptation stories, at least four things could happen:

1) Adaptation will struggle to climb up the agenda of the world’s most powerful decision makers. The adaptation needs of those already suffering the direct impacts of climate change will therefore not be heard. Their efforts to lobby for the resources needed to adapt to a crisis – that most of them played no part in creating – will then continue to be ignored and marginalised. They will go on suffering while the powerful concern themselves with never ending technocracy, and their own adaptations.

2) If adaptation remains low or not even on the agenda; it will either not happen at all, with many perishing or being forced into extreme evasive action; or, as survival instincts kick in, it will happen in ad-hoc, insufficient, unplanned and often maladaptative ways. 

3) With adaptation low on the agenda, those with the means to adapt will still adapt, but won’t necessarily be mindful in how they do it. With little scrutiny and limited accountability, the temptation (and opportunity) to adapt in self-interested ways will be strong. ‘Agnostic adaptation’ is likely to become more prevalent, and more examples of the world’s natural resources being used with impunity to power air conditioning units, build flood defences and protect consumer capitalism by any means will become apparent.

4) Those with the means to adapt and compassion to do so in mindful and just ways might also end up maladapting too, by mistake. They will adopt strategies that are naïve, or prone to producing unintended consequences. Why? Because they haven’t been exposed to information, training, best practice examples and the economies of scale that come from the scaling up of innovative adaptation methods. They might also adapt for a 1.5°C warmer world, when they should have been adapting to 2.5°C or 3° C.

There is a fifth danger. If the climate movement doesn’t talk about adaptation, other movements will, and this might create some unjust and undesirable outcomes:

5) There are several Adaptation narratives. For example, some people see adaptation as an incremental process, while others see it as a transformative one. Some think of it as an exercise in accommodating climate change, others as an exercise in resisting it. Some frame the responsibility for adaptation at the individual or community level; others see it as something for national or multinational bodies to deal with. As yet, none of these stories or narratives have become fully stuck in the collective conscience, but it is something to be vigilant about. The narratives that do end up dominating will have a powerful effect on the forms of adaptation that emerge over the coming decades. This is because the stories told about climate change adaptation, shape not only how it is understood, but also how it is done (which can be to and for people; or with and by them); stories are powerful things.

Dr. Morgan Phillips is Co-Director of The Glacier Trust, a UK based charity that enables climate change adaptation in Nepal. For more information on The Glacier Trust and its work, including the recently released book ‘Great Adaptations – In the shadow of a climate crisis’ please visit www.theglaciertrust.org

  • Feature image shows farmers in Deusa, Solukhumbu attending a coffee production training workshop as part of their community-led approach to climate change adaptation in Nepal. Copyright The Glacier Trust.

2 comments

  1. Systemic solutions will always have to be adaptive in nature if they are to be effective. A few feet variance in elevation or an imaginary line in the sand leading to a new tribe will create a host of variables. That being said, it is the solutions that must be adaptive and as it were, adapted in those areas wherein they work.

    I do have to question however, when you claim we must establish “new models of democracy and economics”. Nations destroy nations for much less, and the proverbial powers that be will fight to retain the status quo and their firm grip on power. How many foundations and orgs are using just such concepts to fatten their wallets with such promises that oddly, never come to fruition?

    Rather, I would propose building a system that functions within the current system but that would also continue to function when the current system inevitably collapses. When you can provide a clear example to the people of how much better their life could be, then you can get them to stand together and demand the change, but only if that new system works.

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