Obama Moves on Adaptation

 NOV 4, 2013    by CARINA WYBORN

Presidential seal
Photo: gettyimages.com

While the Australian Government is currently denying the links between bushfires and climate change (sigh…), President Obama has just released an executive order titled “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change”. It outlines policy objectives, processes to “modernise” Federal programs, directives to Federal agencies who manage land and water, and coordination to support and integrated Federal, State, regional, local and tribal governments, private and non-profit sector efforts. What I find most interesting about this document is the noticeable absence of the word ‘adaptation’, while the document is littered with the words “climate preparedness” and “resilience”. Having previously contemplated whether adaptation is the wrong word, this caught my eye. But then, what is climate preparedness or resilience and are they any better?

Climate adaptation has been defined by the IPCC an an ‘adjustment’ in response to actual or anticipated climate impacts that can either be passive, reactive or anticipatory. This framing of adaptation draws on the idea that climate change is a risk that we can prepare for by protecting ourselves against hazards – flooding, fires, cycles etc that it presents. However, this framing ignores the fact that we live in a world that has far more going on in int than climate change. This definition also largely neglects the social, political and economic structures that cause some people or ecosystems to be more vulnerable to climate change and also the way that those structures constrain or enable any adaptation efforts. And, as I’ve written about before, climate change is viewed as a distant and uncertain phenomenon – thinking about undertaking proactive adaptation actions is often clouded out by more immediate economic or environmental concerns.

So, if the way that adaptation is being framed – as a response to something that people may or may not believe is a problem that will have unknown impacts in the future – is problematic, then is climate preparedness or resilience any better?

The executive order defines “preparedness” as actions taken to plan, organize, equip, and excerise to build, apply and sustain the capacities necessary to prevent protect or ameliorates the effects of climate related damages to life, health, property, livelihoods, it is resistant, and national security. While resilience, is the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover from disruptions.

It’s interesting, because the definitions of preparation and adaptation that they have drawn on a really focusing on actions in relation to climate stressors, whereas we know that much adaptation is deeply embedded within existing social and institutional processes, and often not motivated by climate stressors alone. Within that framing, the definition of resilience doesn’t actually necessarily specify changing conditions as changed by what, and in response to what. It is also a definition of resilience that is very squarely focused on maintaining the status quo: preparing for change and recovering from disruption, which is to be fair is what the original definition of resilience was about.

There’s very little mention in any of this about transformational change – a discussion that is becoming increasingly prominent as with the continual failure of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Transformation becomes important because under even modest climate change, maintaining the status may not be possible (not to mention the fact that the status quo is what got us here in the first place…)  This becomes even more apparent when you go back and look particularly in relation to federal agencies at what federal agencies are required to do.

The introduction to the Executive Order states that more vulnerable communities and ecosystems are likely to bear a disproportionate burden of the impact of climate change, and the focus of this order is largely procedural, calling on agencies to engage in strong partnerships and information sharing undertake risk informed decision-making, to learn adaptively, and to undertake preparedness planning. Working from that higher level of governance, it is understandable that the focus of an executive order like these is on the procedural dimensions of adaptation. There is no point in the federal government directing each agency to undertake particular actions, for all the agencies have different missions and mandate, and operate in very different contexts.

One of the biggest gaps in this Executive Order is the absence of consideration of what is broken with the existing system. Adaptation is complex, it requires decision-making in the context of deep uncertainty and collaboration across public and private sectors with multiple actors, dispersed across space and time with very different goals. We REALLY struggle to make decisions in these kinds of contexts irrespective of climate change. All the uncertainty and challenges revolving around how to go about doing adaptation, what adaptation might look like and what goals might seek to address, have to deal with substantial challenges associated with public decision-making process. I’m thinking mainly about the management of Federal public lands, their decision-making processes are marred with dysfunction, inefficiencies and an inability to govern adaptively. Without such a reassessment of re-evaluation of current procedures, we risk adding a climate adaptation strategy that is either going to embody the existing measures, be completely paralysed by the existing mess or be completely independent of pre-existing mess and therefore not integrated into existing land management decisions.

So… I’m glad Obama has an adaptation strategy, and I look forward to seeing how this pans out. However it seems that irrespective of whether he used the word ‘adaptation’ or not, the framing of climate preparedness and resilience still faces similar challenges in neglecting to consider the critical governance processes through which adaptation is going to be delivered. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the Executive Order and how it will shape the adaptation landscape.

This is a repost from my research blog, The Pacific Exchange

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