Understanding Climate Change Adaptation - Lessons from Community-based Approaches

Ensor, Jonathan
Berger, Rachel
Practical Action Publishing, Rugby, 2009, ISBN: 978 1 85339 683 0, 192pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Dunbar, Kevin

Ban Ki-Moon provides a fitting introduction to this topic: 'Climate change affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. The poorest and most vulnerable - those who have done the least to contribute to global warming— are bearing the brunt of the impact today.' Today, very few scientists or politicians deny that climate change is affecting people and livelihoods around the world, particularly in the global South. The question often asked is what, if anything, can we do about it? Climate-change predictions are just that - predictions. There is very little certainty. So are there any reliable solutions for poor communities in regions affected by fluctuating rainfall, sea-level rise, flooding, drought, and increasing major natural disasters?

Understanding Climate Change Adaptation is a timely and effective attempt to provide some answers to, or at least further understanding of, the issue of climate change, focusing on community-based climate-change adaptations in eight case studies from South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The book is viewed through the lens of an analytical framework to understand the adaptation approaches. This framework relies on two parameters: (1) 'the clarity or uncertainty of existing climate predictions', and (2) 'the vulnerability of a community or household to a given climate change hazard', to create a model to understand the adaptation options undertaken in the case studies, and the relationship between uncertainties of climate predictions and vulnerability to climate hazards. Case studies were aptly chosen from areas where there is more certainty that climate change will cause severe impacts in the near future, which lead to 'no regrets' adaptation measures focusing on addressing the climate challenge, alongside vulnerability-reduction strategies.

A key insight of the book is the notion of these 'no regrets' strategies, which, while often quoted in terms of emission reductions, are put in the context of community-based adaptation here. The concept addresses the problem of carrying out adaptation activities for a predicted climate-change hazard that never occurs. It proposes that activities should simultaneously improve the general well-being of communities in the short term, while reducing community vulnerability to the climate change hazards. The examples considered in the case studies such as 'addressing poor housing, degraded soils or the inequitable distribution of resources' (p. 16) are given as 'no regrets strategies', because they meet climate-change adaptation goals alongside broad development goals, even if the predicted climate-change event does not occur.

While the authors attempt to provide an easy-to-understand explanation of the important scientific side of climate-change predictions and models, they argue that simplicity is not always the best approach. The illusion of certainty and simplicity is alluring, and the risk remains that simple climate-change messages can 'disguise the complexity that is inherent in climate modeling' (p. 20). The editors do a good job of drawing out the important lesson that general climate awareness-raising activities in affected communities, and among the public at large, must become a major part of any successful climate-change adaptation strategy. Some level of understanding of climate change is essential if the household or community is to engage in the process of change and make decisions about adaptation activities.

A well-thought-out, overarching theme in the book is the emphasis on the role of social networks (or 'social capital') in the development and implementation of successful responses to climate change. The most effective examples of this in the case studies were the 'horizontal networks' within the community, mainly farmer-to-farmer or farmer-to-community-based organisations (CBOs), enabling knowledge sharing and access to resources. These enabled farmers to experiment with different seed types and alternative crops, and breed livestock on poorer-quality grazing land by means of access to necessary resources and expertise beyond the experiences contained in traditional knowledge. In both Bangladesh (Chapter 2), and Nepal (Chapter 3), local CBOs were formed which developed 'vertical connections' (p. 171), enabling active participation in policy influence, and interaction with local governments, ensuring that community views were taken into consideration. This use of social networking, and its practical applications for NGO practitioners, was examined in detail in the case studies, and is certainly one of the strongest lessons presented in this book.

The editors keep the book well balanced in terms of theory and practice, and thus it makes excellent reading for the government or NGO policy maker or NGO practitioner, offering them great insight, reflection, and practical case studies to apply to their own work in climate-change adaptation. It is also a great book for students, offering them excellent early learning and an invitation to research further into this increasingly important development topic. Students and some NGO practitioners may, however, have a bit of difficulty in deciphering some of the specialist agricultural language used throughout the case studies, but this should not hinder the overall understanding of the messages put forward by the editors.

Community-based adaptation to climate change remains a relatively new area, albeit a trendy one, for which understanding, awareness, and good practice must be developed and shared widely. Considering the incredible amount of discussion on climate change and adaptation, and the upcoming 2012 Kyoto protocol commitments, this issue is taking on new urgency, and the timing of this book could not be better. Understanding Climate Change Adaptation provides a variety of case studies, hung on a solid framework, to attempt to tackle the underlying issues and provide starting points for adaptation strategies in the face of increasing and ever-more intense climate-change hazards. I hope that NGOs and government policy makers who work in climate-change adaptation, as well as the general public interested in this topic, will take the opportunity to read this book, and, while continuing to advocate emission reductions, will also ensure that the most vulnerable on our planet are able to effectively adapt their livelihoods to an increasingly erratic world climate.