The Deep Adaptation Agenda
For many years, discussions and initiatives on adaptation to climate change were seen by environmental activists and policymakers as unhelpful to the necessary focus on carbon emissions reductions. That view finally changed in 2010 when the IPCC gave more attention to how societies and economies could be helped to adapt to climate change, and the United Nations Global Adaptation Network was founded to promote knowledge sharing and collaboration. Five years later the Paris Accord between member states produced a “Global Goal on Adaptation” (GGA) with the aim of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the global temperature goal” (cited in Singh, Harmeling and Rai, 2016). Countries committed to develop National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and report on their creation to the UN.
Since then the funding being made available to climate adaptation has grown, with all the international development institutions active on adaptation finance. In 2018 the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), African Development Bank (AfDB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and the World Bank each agreed major financing for governments to increase resilience of their communities. Some of their projects include the Green Climate Fund, which was created to provide lower income countries with assistance. Typical projects include improving the ability of small-scale farmers to cope with weather variability through the introduction of irrigation and the ability of urban planners to respond to rising sea levels and extreme rainfall events through reengineering drainage systems (Climate Action Programme, 2018). These initiatives are falling short of the commitments made by governments over the past 8 years, and so more is being done to promote private bonds to finance adaptation (Bernhardt, 2018) as well as stimulate private philanthropy on this agenda (Williams, 2018). These efforts are paralleled by an increased range of activities under the umbrella of “Disaster Risk Reduction” which has its own international agency – the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). The aim of their work is to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts and cyclones, through reducing sensitivity to these hazards as well as the capacity to respond when disasters hit. That focus means significant engagement with urban planners and local governments. In the business sector, this disaster risk reduction agenda meets the private sector through the well- established fields of risk management and business continuity management. Companies ask themselves what the points of failure might be in their value chains and seek to reduce those vulnerabilities or the significance of something failing.
Given the climate science we discussed earlier, some people may think this action is too little too late. Yet, if such action reduces some harm temporarily, that will help people, just like you and me, and therefore such action should not be disregarded. Nevertheless, we can look more critically at how people and organisations are framing the situation and the limitations that such a framing may impose. The initiatives are typically described as promoting “resilience”, rather than sustainability. Some definitions of resilience within the environmental sector are surprisingly upbeat. For instance, the Stockholm Resilience Centre (2015) explains that “resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to
deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.” In offering that definition, they are drawing on concepts in biology, where ecosystems are observed to overcome disturbances and increase their complexity (Brand and Jax, 2007).
Two issues require attention at this point. First, the upbeat allegiance to “development” and “progress” in certain discourses about resilience may not be helpful as we enter a period when material “progress” may not be possible and so aiming for it might become counter- productive. Second, apart from some limited soft skills development, the initiatives under the resilience banner are nearly all focused on physical adaptation to climate change, rather than considering a wider perspective on psychological resilience. In psychology, “resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences” (American Psychology Association, 2018). How a person “bounces back” after difficulties or loss, may be through a creative reinterpretation of identity and priorities. The concept of resilience in psychology does not, therefore, assume that people return to how they were before. Given the climate reality we now face, this less progressivist framing of resilience is more useful for a deeper adaptation agenda.
In pursuit of a conceptual map of “deep adaptation,” we can conceive of resilience of human societies as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. Given that analysts are concluding that a social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: What are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive? That highlights how deep adaptation will involve more than “resilience.” It brings us to a second area of this agenda, which I have named “relinquishment.” It involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviours and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption. The third area can be called “restoration.” It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled civilisation eroded. Examples include re-wilding landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play, and increased community-level productivity and support.
It is not my intention in this paper to map out more specific implications of a deep adaptation agenda. Indeed, it is impossible to do so, and to attempt it would assume we are in a situation for calculated attempts at management, when what we face is a complex predicament beyond our control. Rather, I hope the deep adaptation agenda of resilience, relinquishment and restoration can be a useful framework for community dialogue in the face of climate change. Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?” In 2017, this deep adaptation agenda was used to frame a festival of alternatives organised by Peterborough Environment City Trust. It included a whole day devoted to exploring what relinquishment could involve. As such, it allowed more open conversation and imagination than a narrower focus on resilience. Further events are planned across the UK. Whether it will be useful framing for a broader-level policy agenda is yet to be seen.
How does this "deep adaptation agenda" relate to the broad conceptual framework of sustainable development? It is related to other perspectives that despite the attention of international institutions to “sustainable development goals,” the era of “sustainable development” as unifying concept and goal is now ending. It is an explicitly post-sustainability framing, and part of the Restoration Approach to engaging with social and environmental dilemmas, as I outlined elsewhere (Bendell, et al 2017).