Addressing the political deficit in climate adaptation

Climate change adaptation needs to focus on the political dimensions of vulnerability in order to be effective.

Politics, aid policies and war cause starvation [AFP/Getty Images]

Most efforts at climate change adaptation treat it as a technical challenge of increasing production and managing community participation. As long as approaches continue to ignore the political dimensions of vulnerability, however, their impacts are likely to be severely compromised.

The reasons why were highlighted in a March news piece by Al Jazeera, which effectively described some of the successes of, and obstacles to, effectively adapting to climate change. The story focused on a Senegalese village which sucessfully used solar panels to irrigate what would have otherwise been arid land.

The obstacle was that future plans for expanding the project were being thwarted by the Senegalese government’s recent half-billion dollar investment in coal-fired power plants, which was undermining a focus on expanding renewables.

According to the government, investment in coal is intended to reduce the cost of electricity. Yet anti-corruption campaigners have argued that coal is more expensive than solar and that coal is being prioritised because of the kickbacks officials have received. Campaigners have demanded that the agreements be made public and the arguments in favour of coal be made explicit.

While this might appear to be a uniquely frustrating situation, it is likely to become increasingly common, if climate adaptation continues to be framed in apolitical terms, simply as a problem of scarcity and deprivation.

This ubiquitous account goes: Developing countries are full of poor people, many of whose livelihoods are reliant on directly exploiting the natural environment. Since climate change is likely to reduce the environment’s productive potential, climate change will devastate these already poor people by reducing the already limited amount of food and water available.

The result is that adaptation projects are focussed almost exclusively on promoting practices which increase productivity, increase efficiency and/or rehabilitate the environment.While the Senegalese case clearly highlights the value of increased production, it also shows a striking failure of this framing: It ignores the role of social, political and economic institutions.

Why focus on institutions?

Affecting climate adaptation is fundamentally about reducing vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

Much of our current understanding of vulnerability comes from research on drought and famine in the 1980s. Looking at these events, researchers were puzzled that during periods when food was scarce, only certain groups of people would starve, while others did not. People also frequently starved, even in conditions when food was plentiful.

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To address these issues, theorists of famine looked not only at food production, but also food distribution.

The outcomes were dramatic. They showed how people’s starvation was underpinned not only by a lack of production, but also by policies surrounding food distribution. Starvation was caused by policies which determined people’s entitlement to food, by war and by decisions over how to release food aid.

Today, famine is widely understood as the result of not only a lack of food, but also a lack of access to the food that exists. Vulnerability to famine is underpinned by an inability to affect those rules and policies.

Academic efforts at documenting and understanding vulnerability have since added to their focus on scarcity, a focus on identifying processes of exclusion and marginalisationi.e. politics and power.

From such a perspective, the Senegalese example appears less unique. The challenge of adaptation is not simply one of developing solar panels to power irrigation. It is also one of creating the political conditions under which access to energy can be meaningfully contested, so that the benefits are not easily co-opted by political elites.

What are the implications for adaptation?

Given the prominence of the institutional view of vulnerability, one might expect to find a focus on issues of empowerment and enfranchisement alongside those of production in the adaptation plans being put forward by certain countries and  in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change guidelines.

This is not the case. Where power is addressed, there are merely guidelines about “participation” and “transparency”. This is entirely different from developing measures that actually enable individuals to affect the rules and policies which determine access to resources.

For climate adaptation to genuinely address vulnerability will require connecting concerns about social justice with those of scarcity. As the Senegal example shows, this means making connections between access to information about national infrastructure agreements and climate adaptation.

It requires making similar connections: between adaptation and the need for a vibrant and independent civil society; between adaptation and a free and independent media; and between climate adaptation and access to, and respect for, the rule of law.

Fundamentally, addressing vulnerability will require transferring more direct control over resources to the people who depend on them. The current lack of focus on features of empowerment or enfranchisement in most adaptation plans should be of concern to social justice campaigners everywhere.

If we continue to frame adaptation in apolitical terms, our efforts may well end up being futile. Worse than that, in cases where new resources are made available to existing elites they may end up buttressing exclusion and therefore entrenching vulnerability.

At the same time, because climate change will affect so many different aspect of lifehealth, food, water, land, waste, etcit will be impossible to adapt effectively to climate change without creating a far more just society in general. A failure to incorporate political concerns into adpatation efforts would therefore not only mean that adaptation policies fail on thier own terms, it would also represent a missed opportunity for building more equitable, inclusive and just societies.

James Morrissey is researcher focussed on environmental justice concerns.