From short-sighted politics to a clear vision for climate action

Climate Change

As climate change continues to have a devastating impact on people’s lives, Daniel Morchain argues that the challenge for climate change adaptation practitioners is to deliver a convincing message to decision makers. 

In Greenlandic ‘sila’ means several things: weather, animal, human consciousness and the power of nature. This strikes me as something important, as viscerally meaningful. It speaks of the Greenlandic people’s understanding of their environment and its relation to their own self, and their very existence. It suggests a very organic, balanced, harmonious way of life. Traditionally the Greenlandic people depend on ice (its thickness, its seasonality, its very formation) for their survival. But one factor has
transformed this way of life dramatically: climate change.

…some continue to ignore, dispute or reject the fact that climate change is happening.In and around more tropical latitudes, climate change impacts in the form of drought, floods, more extreme natural hazards, sea level rise, and any number of other manifestations are also having a devastating effect in the lives of people.

Yet despite the fact that billions of people feel its effects uncomfortably close and on a daily basis, and that the scientific community confidently confirms that the global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is caused by humans, some continue to ignore, dispute or reject the fact that climate change is happening.

Take for instance the de facto ban of the term ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ in the American State of Florida, a part of the world not unfamiliar with the impacts of ‘the unnameable something’ on coral reefs, coastal areas and communities. Or, consider what a ridiculously small role the issue of climate change has had in the debates leading up to the UK’s parliamentary elections on May 7.

Why change is needed now

Ruling structures of power have always been resistant and slow to change, but climate change has brought urgency to the table and the need for a fundamental change in thinking about the future. If we don’t challenge the practices that aggravate global warming, and which are promoted by the structures of power; if we don’t leave behind the unsustainable aspects of our development models and our ways of life; if we don’t recognise climate change as one of the key challenges of our generation and act on it, we will miss the opportunity to turn around the
prevalent short-sighted thinking. We are sitting on a time bomb.

Change, of course, is not easy. And figuring out good and effective ways to adapt to climate change is actually pretty difficult. For instance, one study concludes that adaptation measures currently being implemented in the semi arid regions of Southern Africa ‘are unlikely to help communities adapt to climate change into the future’, despite all best efforts. For adaptation to be successful, our thinking and practice
needs to become a transformational process; it needs to go beyond strictly incremental efforts to keep away the flood waters, and involve new players, including those whose voices haven’t been heard.

The challenge ahead

Our challenge is to make this transformational thinking move beyond climate change circles. Climate change adaptation practitioners in both high and low income countries will fail in their mission if they can’t deliver a convincing message to decision makers, be it local, municipal and national authorities, donors or the private sector, communities, or the public in general. The question is not just how much funding there will be for climate change adaptation, but how it is going to be used. …our thinking and practice needs to become a
transformational process

In other words, as Karen O’Brien writes: ‘developing and spreading low-carbon technologies is much easier than questioning ways of life’. And while that prospect is not overly scary (normally the ‘bad’ option is not low-carbon technologies!), it poses the right challenges.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sir Brian Hoskins rightly pointed out that one of the barriers to climate change action is that there is a: ‘total lack of the vision of where the world will be in 30 years time’ and what a ‘viable industry’ would look like then. And that’s precisely the problem. While adaptation is a long process, climate change discussions are often reduced to the level of ‘what’s going to make someone happy for the next 5 minutes’, and what will buy
politicians a vote.

This does not negate the need to address ongoing crises immediately, but it demands that long term visions and their implications are also debated today. 

A survey of 90 climate change adaptation practitioners in semi arid regions of Africa and South Asia reveals that whatever complexity and combination of barriers adaptation practitioners face, shaping the vision for the next 30 years will require foundational and transformational changes to governance systems and institutions, making them fairer and more participatory. It will also require creating an
enabling policy and legal environment for development, without forgetting the poorest and most vulnerable.

Transformational change, it seems to me, is largely a return to the notions of what we feel viscerally to be just.

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Header image: Shahdadpur, Sanghar district: Residents collecting their belongings on a higher ground outside village after the floods in Pakistan. Credit: Tariq Masood Malik/ Oxfam

Author: Daniel Morchain
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.