Blogging for pro-poor climate adaptation: II. Wanted: new ideas for combating vulnerability to Climate Change

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[Originally posted at the Development Marketplace Blog]

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.

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). 

However, the unpredictability of some of these climate challenges does not concern me overly. To me, adaptation is much broader than the direct management of climate risks and their primary physical consequences—much more than sea walls! We need innovative ideas for how to better manage the consequences for poor people of the direct physical impacts of worsening climate.

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.

We discuss this point at length in a paper I just published (together with Paul Bennett Siegel and Steen Lau Jorgensen) in the journal Global Environmental Change. Our article examines the links between climate risks, adaptation, and vulnerability of people and is available for free download on the SSRN website .


Our paper argues that some of the responses to climate change will come from unexpected quarters. Social policy and social protection, for example, have been largely absent from climate discussions yet could well turn out to be vital to protect the poor from the consequences of climate change. Social policies can create synergies between climate action and poverty alleviation. What is good for adaptation and what helps fight poverty sometimes overlaps and social policy and social protection lay at the heart of this overlap.

A staggering burden of poverty and vulnerability stem from climate risks—even before factoring in climate change. While it is true that all societies, at all times, have managed climatic risks in some way we still don’t seem to have learned to do it well. In many places, management of climate fluctuations continues to be costly, inadequate, and ineffective.

A few months of drought can cause a lifetime of poverty. In Zimbabwe, children that were less than two years old when a severe drought hit were significantly more stunted and later in life did worse in school and even had inferior health and earnings as adults. Hurricane Mitch in Honduras exacerbated asset inequalities when the poor lost a greater share of assets in the disaster and recovered at a slower rate than the non-poor. For Ethiopia’s poor, recovering their livestock after droughts can be nearly impossible.

I don’t think we should pretend there is a blueprint or a simple action plan for moving forward. Instead, I suggest we begin thinking about how climate change and climate vulnerability impact on the way in which poor people manage risk and maintain their livelihoods. Then, adaptation can be designed to reduce vulnerability of people and defend opportunities for growth and sustainable development.


Rasmus Heltberg

Lead Evaluation Officer, Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank

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