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Wanted: New Ideas for Combating Vulnerability to Climate Change

Rasmus Heltberg's picture

Note: This is a two part entry. Part 2 is coming soon.
In my first blog entry, I mentioned that adaptation to climate change spans a vast range of possible actions and that it can seem a rather abstract concept. Adaptation can range from sea walls to drought-resistant crops to social protection for climate shocks. This big range of possible actions makes it hard to nail down: what does any given country, region, or village really need to do to start adapting? Any two people talking about climate adaptation in poor countries probably carry different mental images of the kind of actions they think will be needed.

To pretend that we have all the answers—as some of the numerous reports being written on the topic do—is foolish. We are in the pioneer days of gearing up for climate change and no-one knows what actions will ultimately prove most effective.

That is why we are launching the DM focused on climate adaptation. We wanted to give the thousands of development pioneers out there—and they are literally thousands—a chance to showcase creative ideas. Some of these ideas may just end up helping millions of poor people protect their lives and livelihoods.

Come to think of it, we are not always sure which climate problem will prove the hardest to deal with, although we have a good sense that it is going to vary by country; we also have a good sense that many effects will be felt through water: either we’ll get too much of it (floods, coastal surges), too little of it (droughts, river drying, water scarcities), or its timing will be all wrong (more intense rains, more unpredictability).

But when you read the text of the DM Call which we will announce shortly you’ll see that the proposals we are soliciting are not much about the direct management of climate risks and their primary physical consequences—nothing about sea walls here! Instead, we are looking for innovative ideas on how to better manage the consequences for poor people of the direct physical impacts of worsening climate.

Why is that? Let me give you my personal interpretation (disclaimer: what follows does not represent the DM committee and is not part of the selection criteria in the DM competition).

I have come to realize that adaptation is about empowering people to protect themselves against adverse weather and climate events such as floods, storms, rising sea levels, and higher temperatures. Many of these weather events already affect many poor people badly and they are predicted to get worse. To begin gearing up for this, societies could become better at managing the adverse weather events that they already deal with. Just like Bangladesh which has grown skilled at coping with frequent floods and tornados. This is also called the no-regrets principle: focus on what we can do that help the poor manage the climate risks they already face as well as those they will face in the future. Sorry to belabor the point, but adaptation cannot only or primarily focus on defending the bridges and highways and power systems. We must keep poor people’s well-being closely in mind when planning adaptation. I call this pro-poor adaptation: actions that reduce the vulnerability of poor people to climate change.