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OOSKAnews Voices: The Lost Climate Generation and the Adaptation Skeptics

CORVALLIS, OR, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a new series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this piece, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, discusses the need to bridge the generation gap in approaches to climate change adaptation.

Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Matthews, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

Just a few years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a US university with a strong water program across a number of disciplines -- engineering, science, governance, conservation and resource management. I had been asked to talk about climate change, and on a whim, I began by asking the class of about 40 students, “Raise your hands: who here has ever heard of climate adaptation?”

One young woman responded. “I’ve heard of it, but couldn't tell you what it means.” I nodded. “Who here thinks climate change means big changes in how we manage natural resources?” Every hand went up. No one was older than 30.

The same year, I sat on a small closed-door UNFCCC panel that focused on trying to estimate the importance of climate change to water management for some forthcoming programs. The panel included highly technical representatives, often managers, from development banks, major consulting firms, major natural resource intergovernmental conventions and think tanks, and prominent NGOs.

Perhaps 18 people were squeezed into this little room, and I must have been one of the very youngest at about 44 -- the mean age must have been late 60s. The manager of one powerful international financial institution summed up the majority opinion: “You know, climate change is really overblown. We have IWRM [integrated water resources management], we can increase storage with bigger dams. Adaptation is not a big deal -- certainly not an urgent issue. We already know what to do here.”

As much as I had been shocked by the basic ignorance of the students, I was also struck by their intuitive sense that past practice wasn’t good enough. For the experts meeting, I was aghast at their smugness. I had just reviewed the International Panel on Climate Change’s water chapters for the most recent assessment report, and I have long tried to keep track of the patterns in both the practice and science around impacts for climate and water. I could be wrong, but I didn’t think they understood the depth of how poor decisions made now could ripple forward for decades.

These patterns in age are clearly not universal, and I can think of both young doubters and older visionaries on water and climate issues. But I believe they represent more general trends: there is a gap between an older generation that is less interested in revisiting a long career’s worth of assumptions -- skeptics about the basic value of considering new approaches to decision-making, risk analysis and risk reduction -- and a younger generation who have grown up assuming that climate change is going to be an essential part of their lives going forward, but unsure how their training and future employers are addressing these issues.

Age-wise, I am somewhere between the adaptation skeptics and the lost climate generation. And as a respectful witness to both groups, I am concerned about how these gaps play out through educational institutions and employers.

Very recently, I visited one of the world’s leading universities for water management and sat down with a group of instructors to talk about how they were approaching climate adaptation for their students.

“Oh yes -- we have a class on climate adaptation. We set up that curriculum in 2007, and it hasn’t changed very much since then,” was their response.

The past decade has seen a radical leap forward in practice and understanding about how to link methodologies to test the confidence of future projections, develop robust performance markers, and implement flexible management and governance approaches to address residual uncertainty.

Water management is changing in fundamental and profound ways, and 2007 represents a now-distant past disconnected from current thinking. Indeed, the generation gap seems to be exacerbated, with academic institutions that may not be very involved with the rapidly moving edge of practice, which is often not well represented in academic journals.

At the same time, I hear from major water employers such as development banks that their greatest challenge in going to scale with adaptation is the pool of potential employees and consultants; the employers have been making steady shifts to mainstream and modernize their work, but almost no one is qualified to fill the jobs.

One manager at an international financial institution told me, “We wrote a scope of work for contemporary practice for a new project, but none of our existing staff or stable of consultants could submit a relevant application. We are worried we cannot implement robust methods today now that we know what to do.”

In effect, he is describing a plan to move from a boutique, one-off approach to climate adaptation to substantive mainstreaming. But the transition will not happen without preparation and training and support.

The adaptation skeptics may in fact be crippling the lost generation, creating bigger hurdles for those of interested in sustaining water resources over many decades and centuries. The lack of awareness among students I have been seeing worldwide seems much clearer in this context.

Fortunately, a cross-generational transition seems to be in progress. Climate change is beginning to leak into many universities, and into many programs within those universities. More importantly, there are some trends emerging that link quite recent thinking from practitioners with researchers and students (as well as working professionals interested in broadening their knowledge).

A glance at UNESCO-IHE’s current course catalog sees climate adaptation deeply integrated across many courses, while groups such as my home institution AGWA have been partnering with Deltares, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the World Bank to work with educational institutions such as IHE, Oregon State University, and Colorado State University to develop new curricula, study materials, and syllabi to bridge practice, academia, and employer and student needs.