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What are the good reasons there is not more action on adaptation to climate change in the organisations included in this research?

by Kate Lonsdale

Adaptation to climate change has been framed in many different ways and is often described as a process.  From this work and the work of others (Ballard (2008), Metcalf (pers comm.) this process can been seen as a process of deepening understanding about what is required to be adapting well.  In an initial engagement with the issue linear predict and provide solutions might be sought.  As these are explored further they are seen to be lacking in many situations and more sophisticated solutions and approaches are sought.  Before the issue can be taken up there has to be some 'burning platform' or 'climate change champion' in the organisation (or sector) who acts to bring the attention of the issue to others and they have to be able to make a sufficiently coherent and urgent enough sounding case for it to be heard above the may other competing issues that may be affecting the organisation (or sector) at any one time.  I believe that the following factors are significant in encouraging an organisation or sector to take the issue on initially:

  • The salience of the issue - how close the issue of climate change impacts is to the core purpose of the organisation.  How easy it is to make a link between what the organisation does to the weather now and thus to the climate as it changes in the future.  Is the link direct (e.g. increased flooding will make this organisations/sector unprofitable) or indirect (possible implications for procurement in some countries?
  • The existence of key people who, because of their previous experience or personal interests and motivations have lead them to take a key interest in the issue (the tempered radical, Myerson)
  • The existence of recent or easy to imagine 'disasters' (floods and droughts) rather than less visible impacts that seem less important than other drivers (e.g. an aging population, the credit crisis)
  • Clear understanding of the issue and confidence that by paying attention to adaptation will not draw attention away from the mitigation agenda
  • The motivation to take on adaptation is internal rather than imposed externally  e.g. through a policy decision i.e. the organisation can clearly see why this is important
  • There is an understanding of and possibility to explore the potential wider consequences of climate change for the organisation (or sector) that starts to highlight the need to take it on board and help to map out the potential for synergies with other work 
  • There are opportunities to identify what this might mean on a day to day basis throughout the organisation (or sector).  People are able to get a sense of how much more work is required which may help to overcome the fear of being overwhelmed. 
  • People in the organisation (or sector) are able to discuss and identify examples of what changes and responses are appropriate at any time and to revisit them periodically to reflect on whether the assumptions made still hold.

The next stage towards effective action is about obtaining the information to develop a fuller understanding of how your particular context will be affected, enabling you to map out priorities and get an idea of the scale of the problem and also understanding how gaps in information will affect decision making (knowing that decisions still have to be made and should not be put off).   At this point it is you have to start to explore the availability and the quality of the information you need to make decisions and this is where you start to understand the need to make 'good enough decisions for now' rather than perfect decisions with perfect information.


Spectrum of information

In identifying where you or your organisation exist on this spectrum from 0 to 10 it is possible to think through what is going well in terms of access to information and what could improve.  By progressing up the spectrum ideas held about what would improve decision making may be challenged and let go.  For example, it may seem that probabilistic projections when published will significantly improve your ability to make decisions.  On their release, you may realise that the level of uncertainty is easier to understand but the information is no more certain than the previous projections and thus the decisions made using the new information are not any more certain than before.  Progression along the line is thus as much an act of internal, individual reflection on what is required for those involved as learning objective truths about future climate.

Examples of what might assist progression along the spectrum towards 'having all the information you need':

  • explanation of uncertainty in the available data
  • having a better exchange with scientists or others might enable me to see how decision making processes need to allow for adaptation
  • accessible, comprehensible information, in a format that is helpful to policy makers, professionals and the public
  • information available at an scale appropriate for the decision 
  • information about the technical details of options
  • opportunities and funding for experimentation with options

As you progress up the spectrum towards 10 it is possible to reach a more sophisticated level of understanding about the effectiveness of the decision making process through having a better understanding of the limitations of the scientific knowledge (what is uncertain and what can never be known) and appreciate that, given this, there is a need to make 'good enough' decisions now with what we have.   Linked to this is also the need to see adaptation as an iterative process of learning and revisit such 'good enough given the available knowledge' decisions as new information becomes available to ask if they are still sufficiently robust and if not what needs to change.  Opportunities to reflect on the effectiveness of particular decisions are thus needed.  How easy is this?  How much is the culture of the organisation open to this?

At this level you start to accept that there is no easy or even necessarily 'right' answer and that there may be many perspectives on the adaptation decision that need to be taken into account.  Good enough decisions are not something that can be identified 'robustly' in 'silos'.    Good facilitation of diverse groups is required to avoid power battles, especially if there is likelihood for conflict and competition for scarce resources.  

At this level new questions for enquiry emerge, for example: 

Are all the people who need to be engaged in this available and interested in taking part?

Is there someone who can hold the process, facilitate the group and be clear about boundaries?

How open is the group open to listening to and learning from others?

How open can the group be about issues of power?

How attached to 'business as usual' and the status quo is this group?  Who has most to lose from this way of working? Can this be explored? How can they be supported?



Ballard, D. and Ballard, S. (2008)

Metcalf (2007) Guidance for National Indicator 188, pers comm..

Myerson, D. (2003) Tempered Radicals, How people use difference to inspire change at work, Harvard Business School Press

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