Credit: Adam Patterson/Oxfam

Embracing transformation in the face of climate change

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Researchers and development practitioners need to think big in the face of irreversible climate change argues Jessica Fullwood-Thomas.

Credit: Adam Patterson/Oxfam

Credit: Adam Patterson/Oxfam

There is no doubt that we are now past the tipping point for irreversible global climate change. The ever escalating disasters from Houston to Bangladesh and Sierra Leone to the Caribbean tell us that privilege and poverty continue to shape our relationship with the environment. This results in the poorest and most marginalised people experiencing the greatest exposure to human- made and induced disasters. If we take this as fact then it follows that humankind must transform the way we distribute resources (water, energy, carbon, land) between people and positively engage with the limits of the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity for biodiversity.

transformative change is achievable but only if we act now
I have just come from the Transformations 2017 Conference where academics, researchers and practitioners loudly proclaimed a refusal to accept that our present is our future, whilst insisting that transformative change is achievable but only if we act now.

There is lots of work to be done if we are to get anywhere close to the commitments of the SDGs and Paris Climate Agreement. Incremental adaptations are no longer going to get the job done. We need to win bigger and faster, to change insidious inequalities and economic models that perpetuate and sustain vulnerability.

we need to find new ways to work together, build shared accountability and leverage greater influencing power
It seems to me that activists, researchers, thought leaders and practitioners are critical change agents for this resistance movement. Given the convergence of crises we are seeing in the world today we need to find new ways to work together, build shared accountability and leverage greater influencing power. We must set a new trajectory for the ecology of planet earth which enables us to manage change and transform communities, systems, and services, to be fit for purpose for everyone and everything.

Amongst many things, this means addressing unequal economic models and trade deals that contribute to food insecurity and poverty globally. It means changing human behaviour to better manage our own carbon footprint and achieve a more egalitarian approach to sharing resources like water and land. It means finding alternative energy sources that both support human life(style) and halt the damaging temperature rises which threaten the living organisms and associated non-living components of our ecosystems upon which everything depends.

In seeking to transform the world we must also accept the need to transform ourselves
As Kumi Naidoo said “humanity cannot say to itself the kind of world we have is the best we can create”. In seeking to transform the world we must also accept the need to transform ourselves.

Einstein said ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’. Many NGOs are founded on principles of ‘do no harm’. I think we need to consciously question whether, given current practice, whatever we deliver does not go far enough. Instead of facilitating truly transformative change we perpetuate thematically siloed project plans, allow priorities to be set by politicised funding streams and restrict our vision of success to the confines of output orientated logframes. Iterative reflexivity and adaptive management are key. We need project management tools that allow us to reflect on the outcomes of our programmes and adapt them more effectively. We also need to consider the scales at which we work and put greater emphasis on policy and governance changes rather than episodic project wins at a micro or meso level.

We all share the responsibility for adapting to climate change
We all share the responsibility for adapting to climate change. Those of us in the Global North need to recognise that we don’t have all the answers. If we are to succeed we need to draw on capacity and knowledge from the Global South and embrace horizontal and interdisciplinary partnerships so that the results work for all.

We need to think differently about our questioning, the knowledge products we create, and how we communicate, and put all of this into action. We need to be brave and act now. And we need to learn continuously and mould interventions as we go. Letting go of intellectual territorialism would help enable cross-boundary working and holistic transformation. Rethinking our role in this way requires a shift in identity, from being owners of processes to stewards of change; from hoarders of knowledge to curators of innovation.

The past tells us that, when needed, the world has recognised it has to de-construct in order to re-construct. In times of great change there are often feelings of grief and anxiety as we move from one identity, way of life and set of cultural memes to another. Yet there is also an opportunity to see beyond our bounded realities to a new socio-ecological existence. In this mindset we can embrace the transformation that climate change requires of us.

Author
Jessica Fullwood-Thomas

Jessica Fullwood-Thomas

Jess is the Resilience Advisor in the Economic Justice team in Oxfam GB. She also works with the Resilience Knowledge Hub. Jess' responsibilities include supporting country programmes on understanding vulnerability, analysing risk and delivering resilience building programmes.