The Polycentricity of Climate Change Adaptation: Translations between International Conferences and Local Development Projects

ArnallBy Alex Arnall

Bonn, Germany, is one of the main global centres for north-south development relations, particularly for climate change. The aim of this session was to explore how the idea of climate change passes from the arena of international negotiations, down to the local level (and vice versa), and is interpreted by development actors working at the ‘coalface’ of adaptation projects, with a particular focus on Africa. It was not the intention of the session to question the phenomenon of climate change per se, which is acknowledged as a serious challenge for humankind, but rather to examine how climate change adaptation it is being put into practice by governments and development agencies, and to explore what the politics and outcomes of these processes are.

The audience heard from six speakers, who represented a range of national contexts, including Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The talks were punctuated by two Q&A / discussion sessions. The main themes to emerge from the session were as follows:

We still have a relatively poor understanding of what climate change adaptation is

Climate change adaptation is a serious and complicated topic i.e. it is a ‘wicked’ problem. We need to have a better understanding of what climate change adaptation is and avoid the temptation to develop ‘blueprint’ interventions in its name. This is important so as to avoid unduly interfering in social processes that are not necessarily directly relevant to climate change.

The adaptation concept is being ‘used’ to capture development funding

Development agendas tend to be led by funding priorities, and are not always focussed on the needs of the poor. This means that development actors will sometimes ‘chase’ adaptation funding by rebranding their activities as such. This does not mean, however, development agencies and researchers are necessarily simply ‘victims’ of development funding agendas, and they do have some degree of control over donor priorities. There is plenty of interesting and well-meaning work currently underway to understand the adaptation concept, and we should not presume that it is all simply about chasing money.

Adaptation risks becoming another development ‘buzzword’

Unfortunately, the lack of clarity over what adaptation is means that it risks becoming another development ‘buzzword’, like ‘participation’ or ‘empowerment’. There is a danger that the currently fashionable adaptation concept might become devalued unless it can be made more meaningful to local level actors.

Translating adaptation theory to concrete action on the ground is difficult

There is limited understanding amongst actors at the national level and below of which adaption measures are required to respond to the climate change problem in both the urban and rural contexts. It is easy to commission studies to study climate change adaptation, but much harder to operationalise interventions to bring about adaptations in society.

There is a risk that adaptation can be used to justify unpopular social policies

In some contexts, policies for climate change adaptation are purposely or inadvertently bringing about the (re)emergence of unpopular social policies, such as resettlement, land enclosures or top-down public works programmes. This is resulting in ‘old’ development struggles between the state and people coming back into the fore. Much of the power from the adaptation concept stems from the idea that adaptation is an ‘imperative’: i.e. that ‘you have to adapt and ‘there is no alternative’.

There is a need to ‘denaturalise’ the adaptation paradigm

There is a need to rediscover the ‘culture’ in climate change. In some societies there is not a word for climate and yet these groups of people are supposed to be the ones adapting. For example, in Tanzania the word ‘Engai’ has three meanings: ‘God’, ‘rain’ and ‘sky’. This signals that nature and culture are not separated in this language/understanding system in the same way as the Western scientific tradition.

Indigenous knowledge is important for adaptation but we must use the concept with caution

Indigenous knowledge (IK) and western scientific knowledge need to be brought together to understand how to adapt. However, we must be careful not to romanticise the IK concept. In particular, there are important political dimensions of IK that can be overlooked by policymakers and researcher working on climate change adaptation.

Chair: Detlef Müller-Mahn, University of Bonn

Rapporteur: Alex Arnall, University of Reading

Alex Arnall is a social scientist conducting research and teaching on climate change, rural livelihoods and poverty reduction. He has an PhD in Geography from the Universiy of Oxford and a Master of Science from the Imperial College London. His most recent research has been based in central and southern Mozambique and he also has work experience in South Africa, Angola, Uganda, Brazil, the Maldives and Russia.