In just a few years, awareness of climate change risks – and of the need to adapt – has greatly increased across Asia. But how do you achieve successful adaptation, especially when it’s only one of many priorities on countries’ development agendas? A key message that emerged from this year’s Forum was that adapting effectively, and at the scale and pace needed, will require systemic changes, along with strong, multi-stakeholder partnerships.

“Many risks are manageable with good adaptation solutions, but we need to get our act together,” said Youssef Nassef, coordinator of the Adaptation Programme at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat. The goal, he said, should be “transformational adaptation” – a “metamorphosis” to a more resilient society.

While there seems to be a growing momentum for change, there are many challenges, not least of which is the broad range of actors who need to be engaged in the process: from local communities and district officials to national governments, businesses, civil society, and the media. These diverse actors come together in many different ways, and the success rates to date have been mixed.

“Too often, stakeholders are not identified from the outset, or often we ask the wrong questions or understand the wrong aspects of the problem, given there may often exist multiple agendas and multiple benefits”, said SEI Executive Director Johan L. Kuylenstierna, who spoke at a plenary session on “adaptation as a multi-stakeholder process”.  It is important to work together to identify problems and find and implement solutions, he added; researchers can play a key role by working with local communities to understand relationships, mutual dependencies and power imbalances.

“There is a need to penetrate behind the structural challenges resulting from many reasons such as the lack of access to technology or information, discrimination, and inequality,” Kuylenstierna said. “We need to level the playing field.”

Gender equality and systemic change
SEI Senior Research Fellow Babette Resurreccion, who specializes in gender issues in adaptation work, was part of a panel that emphasized the importance of addressing gender issues as a key aspect of achieving systemic change.

“Gender connotes a complex set of power relations that creates vulnerability, exclusions, and inequalities. It’s not just a thing to be added on,” she said.

And adaptation is not inherently a game-changer, she added: “It can worsen gender equalities. Adaptation needs to be transformative in terms of changing systems, institutions, and the ways we think. Changing gender inequality requires changes to the ways we think and to political practice.”

SEI Associate Louis Lebel stressed the importance of focusing on people whose social and economic situation place them at particular risk. “Change will only happen if more attention is paid to the needs of the most vulnerable groups such as marginalized communities, women, and ethnic minorities,” he said. “Policy analysis in these areas is still weak and policy contradictions are many. There is a need for more place- and people-based research to explore and understand existing problems and gain better insights for policy solutions.”

Building and applying adaptation knowledge
A notable change in this year’s forum was the stronger emphasis on practical solutions, Lebel said. “In the past, the focus was on the different sets of vulnerabilities and adaptation measures. This time, there is a greater awareness that not all measures succeed. But knowledge is being shared and lessons are being learned.”

SEI Senior Research Fellow Richard Klein, who has more than 20 years’ experience in climate adaptation research and policy advice, said the knowledge and practice of adaptation have “come a long way” since the mid-1990s. Then, he said, “it was even politically incorrect to mention adaptation, as it would divert attention away from what was considered the more salient and critical issue of mitigation of climate change.”

As it became clear that some climate change impacts would be unavoidable, there was a recognition that adaptation was also crucial, to reduce vulnerability. Still, it has taken time to understand adaptation needs and identify effective approaches.

“About five years ago, the focus was on trying to answer, ‘What do we adapt to?’ This has now given way to, ‘we know the problem – let us focus on solutions,” said Klein. But moving from knowledge into practice has also brought new challenges.

“Theoretical concepts don’t always fit the decision realities of many stakeholders,” Klein said. “Even the simple word ‘adaptation’ can carry different meanings. We need to focus more strongly on ‘reducing climate risk’ – which includes both mitigation and adaptation. The time scale for planning and policy is usually 5-10 years, but climate change happens over a 50-year period or more. We need to make clearer the connections between present and future risks.”

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