Adaptation … Just another word for development?

In a recent article, Megan Rowling (read it here) posed a big question: Has climate change adaptation lost its way? Quoting experts like Lisa Schipper, it asked if the concept of transformational adaptation had “lost its edge” and has become “just another word for development”. With adaptation flooding public consciousness recently, and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) set to meet this week, it’s a big question. The answer could determine the future of billions in adaptation funding.

Well ... more than just one ..

Well … more than just one ..

The idea of “transformation”  in adaptation implies a fundamental or massive changes in the way a system is managed, a place is productively used, or the size and scale at which something is done. Perhaps a key underlying element to “transformational adaptation” is that it seeks to appreciate the real sources of vulnerability to climate change – not the size of the potential hazard itself, but the capacity to cope with change. This capacity is closely tied to poverty, as without resources (time, skills, food, money, land etc), the poor can’t do much else except maintain their current meagre circumstances.

If vulnerability and poverty are so closely linked, and it’s obviously desirable that we minimise both, and funds being relatively short, then transformational adaptation as a concept aims to hit both targets. By addressing vulnerability with projects that undermine poverty, you ensure both development and adaptation to a changing climate, perhaps in a way that’s genuinely equitable and empowering too.

So how is transformational adaptation being used in practice, and what motivates the laments of people such as Schipper.

At the IPCC II talks (where country representatives met to negotiate the wording of the “Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation” report), it acquired something of a bad reputation. Latin American countries got cagey about the meaning. They thought the inclusion of the phrase into the discourse of climate change could allow it to be corrupted – an excuse for other countries to tell them how they should be managing their climate programs, or even economies.  This is a justifiable argument – no country wants to be offered funding for adaptation, only to be told that the money can only be spent on “transformation”, where transformation means, “be more like us”. In the end, the document came out with a caveat that somewhat limited transformation into whatever a country decided it would be – “transformation is considered most effective when it reflects a country’s own visions and approaches to achieving sustainable development in accordance with their national circumstances”.

Schipper argues that the current paradigm focuses on green growth and infrastructure, not poverty eradication or the livelihoods of the very poorest.  If that’s the case, then all current funding does is reinforce the inequitable growth model that’s accompanied the rise of developing countries over the last 20 years.

unequalities in economy

So is Schipper right? The current funds that promote transformational change don’t seem to offer any real clarification on how transformation is being used. Major funding for adaptation so far has come through the Multilateral Development Banks  (the World Bank, the African and Asian Development Banks). These organisations openly seek to fund projects they believe to aid economic growth, and the literature associated with these funds is littered with phrases like “low carbon growth” and “structural change”.

For example, the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience aims to help countries integrate climate adaptation planning into national development plans (a process called “mainstreaming”). National Development Plans, for all countries, tend to be heavily growth focussed; adhering to the logic that the rising tide of growth will provide opportunities for everyone. If this is the case, then for the donors with the big funding pots, transformation at the community level has fallen away, leaving only more funding for the same old development planning – nothing transformational at all. This certainly adds weight to the argument that transformational adaptation has become just another word for economic development.

By way of example, in Bangladesh, just as Schipper argued, PPCR funding mostly went to infrastructure embankment projects that the World Bank and Asian Development Bank had been pouring money into already, as reported in an IIED review

Another example of how transformation is really seen – Christina Figueres, UNFCCC exec. Secretary talks a lot about transformation, even “radical” change. But her speeches also lack any real definition to as what it might really mean. In one blog post, she references a page featuring a series of UN projects  to highlight that transformations are already underway. But all that page does is point out some adaptation projects, one of which includes nothing more than a clean water project – and one that proudly twins with companies who don’t have the best ethical reputations (like Nestle and Coca-Cola).

So from what we’ve seen, there isn’t anything really clear about how adaptation is currently transformational in practice. If anything, it just seems to be a cover word for “climate aware” development. Perhaps, in defence of the donors, it could be argued that transformational adaptation, while ticking lots of utopian ideological boxes, is not really operational in practice.

A preference for stability over risk

A preference for stability over risk

For example, it’s a political nightmare for a politician to actualise. Transformational adaptation requires large upfront investments into programs which introduce radical change, with benefits, if any, only coming in the medium to long term. That’s going to make anyone benefitting from the current status quo immediately sceptical, and even resistant. If those people have been benefiting for a long time, it stands to reason they will also tend to be at the richer and more powerful end of society. Their preference is always going to tend towards stability and control over disruption and the uncertainty of risk. This is even more so if they worked hard to make the changes that put them where they are.

This pattern may be so even smaller communities too. Those that are finding themselves on the up and up having lobbied hard for legal or social change aren’t going to be happy to be told that they need to introduce further radical change due to newly discovered climate hazards. Why should they give up hard won gains to then risk everything because of problems they did not create?

Then there’s the problem of mainstreaming transformation into funding or planning. The fact is, adaptation needs money, and people who spend money like to know exactly what return they’re getting for their investment. Measuring returns requires the introduction of criteria to measure transformations – but how is that possible? The very word “transformation” implies a continuous process, not a stationary target. At what point in that process can a system be said to have “transformed”. It’s clear that any measure of transformation is going to be a composite one, featuring several criteria. But how to choose those criteria? Quantative measures could be too prescriptive and miss the point completely, where as qualitative ones are costly to gauge and vague to understand. For a politicised fund like the GCF, vague criteria just won’t cut it with the bankers and investment minded folk and sitting round the table.

These issues weigh heavily on the potentially utopic notion of transformational adaptation. It’s not hard to understand why the discourse surrounding adaptation has changed from that of innovative opportunities to one of “coping” and “change management” – unsatisfying concepts at best. There isn’t much comfort in knowing that there’s a new flood shelter nearby if you’re also aware that you’ll still lose your land, crops and possessions in the process of running there.

Perhaps the problem though is not the concept itself, but the system in which it finds itself. However climate resilient, low carbon or green it may be, GDP growth, export-led development and private sector investment all dominate the mainstream development paradigm. These policy approaches, by their nature, tend to be more short term focused and dependent on a modified business-as-usual approach, being driven as they are by profit-led development. In this setting, transformational adaptation will find it likely to find a foothold, since it is difficult to find support for inherantly risky, long term projects.

However, the political problems of a concept like transformation can be sidestepped, if adaptation solutions are placed in the hands of the people who stand to be affected. In these cases, it matters less what the overarching development paradigm is, and more what the voices of the people in question are saying. Here, it is local people who can decide on the size and speed of transformation, if that is what is needed at all. There is some hope in that the international development community recognises more and more the need for bottom-up, participatory, people-led development. These lessons need to be learnt and applied. If the integrative nature of vibrant community life can be emphasised, powerful but no less legitimate members of society can be equally incorporated into change, rather than terrified by it.


Perhaps it is also worth introducing new and foreign perspectives as well. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility introduces the idea of things and systems that aren’t just resilient to change and unpredictability, but actively benefit from it. Such things don’t seek targets such as “income per capita” or “amount of cows per household”, but hold certain values above all others – opportunism, balancing security with risk taking, and the ability to bounce back.

Anti-fragility will be the topic of our next post.