OOSKAnews Voices - An Accidental Survey: The State of Climate Adaptation Today

CORVALLIS, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. In this article, 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, describes the state of the art of assessing climate change risk for water and coastal regions. 

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.

Last April, I received an email from a United Nations Frmework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agency called the Consultative Group of Experts or CGE. The CGE organizes and hosts workshops on technical and policy topics for the national liaisons for the member states of the UNFCCC. Could I support three regional workshops — Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia, the Pacific region, and eastern Europe and the Middle East — on the state of the art for assessing climate risk for both the water sector and for coastal regions?

My first thought was that this was not the kind of question you say no to. I had never heard of the CGE before, but some research showed that their workshops span a wide range of topics. Some focus on administrative areas, but some are more detailed and narrow. CGE finds suitable speakers — the “experts” in CGE — but largely allows these speakers to structure the substance of the topic. The attendees for the climate risk workshops would be national focal points on climate adaptation. Of course, I accepted immediately.

My second thought was, these three workshops form a “natural experiment,” an idea professionally familiar to me as a biologist. Most people know that Charles Darwin first articulated the modern theory of biological evolution from a voyage to the Galapagos Islands in the early nineteenth century, but the details beyond there get a little murky. Darwin’s insights came from realizing that the variations in species and biological communities he saw on different islands reflected different histories. In effect, each island was a like a laboratory experiment, with slightly different conditions. Darwin was able to witness the results of hundreds of thousands of years of relatively independent development, so that one species found on several islands might differentiate and shift in isolation over time. Voila, Darwin said: only the evolution of species and different biophysical drivers can account for what I see now.

Since 2007, I’ve traveled between two and three million flight kilometers working on water and climate issues, and I’ve long felt that climate adaptation showed some regional characteristics. Despite the youth of adaptation as a practice and a relatively narrow window for the launch of national adaptation programs, much differentiation had probably emerged. The CGE was providing me with an excellent opportunity to test my hypothesis — to see a natural experiment in variations in policy and practice.

With cooperation of close colleagues at Deltares in the Netherlands, I’ve now attended two of three workshops. In July was the first workshop in Togo in West Africa; representatives of more than 40 of Africa’s 50 nations attended. I’m returning now from the Latin American and Caribbean workshop in Paraguay, where some 23 of the 33 countries in the hemisphere attended. A massive final workshop will occur in a few weeks in Kathmandu, which will include everything between Poland on the west and Hawaii in the east.

But even without attending the final workshop, several patterns are clear.

My first and strongest impression was that most national governments house their climate adaptation teams in environment ministries, which are normally regulatory bodies and relatively weak politically compared to other areas, such as finance, energy, or agriculture. Many of these teams feel weak. Adaptation is not a regulatory issue, nor are climate impacts a “normal” environmental issue. Instead of humans impacting the environment, climate adaptation is really about how the environment transforms us as a species. Many of the African representatives spoke to their limited ability to influence other ministries, and for the LAC workshop we made changes to provide clearer suggestions about how to influence and work with other ministries through the climate risk assessment process. To extend adaptation, my personal sense is that adaptation must cease to be regarded as an environmental issue and be owned as a pillar of economic development. When will finance ministries demand comprehensive climate risk assessments?

Second, while most adaptation decisions are made a subnational scale such as cities, the UNFCCC process of national reporting and tracking adaptation is creating progressive uniformity. And learning is occurring. “We are in our third iteration of this process….” was something that I heard often in Paraguay. Despite changes of government and staff, obstacles in funding, a global financial crisis, and the withdrawal of the US from the UNFCCC, movement is occurring. And most of the movement is in a good direction.

Lastly, much tension exists in two forms of calculus: political decisions and climate risks. All of the adaptation focal points had stories where sound climate risks were discounted and minimized. In Africa, we often heard delegates talk about how they need the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other similar groups to provide a science-based gravitas to balance the political urge to pursue business as usual. In the LAC, we heard about emerging partnerships between citizens and climate adaptation teams, pressuring larger political priorities around choices for water, infrastructure, and urban areas.

In all cases, the most advanced countries were distinguished more by continuity and focus rather than their level of development per se, a message especially clear to me as someone from the US — arguably the northernmost part of Latin America — where we have become more isolated and disconnected on climate issues from other countries.

I’m now looking forward to the third “island” — itself another archipelago spanning Yemen to Fiji to Estonia. Look forward to more tales from Asia.

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