More than 1,000 experts from 60 countries descended on the Asian Development Bank headquarters in Manila in mid-October to discuss and debate climate change adaptation efforts throughout the Asia and Pacific region.  This Asia Pacific Adaptation Network (APAN) Forum, held biennially since 2010, occurred in the midst of several climate change challenges and events:  Typhoon Mangkhut had just left a trail of devastation in northern Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, and Southern China in mid-September. On 8 October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report, highlighting the ever-increasing scale of these climate change challenges: If immediate actions are not taken to reduce GHG concentrations, adaptation will become even more difficult as Earth’s warming exceeds 1.5o C above pre-industrial temperatures.  On 12 October came the International Day for Disaster Reduction, followed by the launch of the Global Commission on Adaptation on the 16th. In early November, the Philippines marked the five-year anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda that devastated a huge swath of its central region, leaving more than 10,000 dead and countless homeless and displaced.

The APAN Forum works to integrate climate change adaptation into development planning across different scales, levels and policy domains. It brings together government representatives, the private sector, academia, NGOs and other civil society organizations, international organizations and youth. Given this year’s numerous and frequent climate events, was the Forum’s theme of “Enabling resilience for all: avoiding the worst impacts” fitting?

As the largest gathering of its kind in the region, the Forum to date has focused on planned climate change adaptations from governments and the development sectors – the formal actors, rather than the informal actors of local communities, organizations, households and individuals.  As recent responses to climate-related disasters have shown, however, the informal actors play a significant role in adaptation through social learning, innovation and autonomous observations and actions. These locally grown practitioners and organizations are acting spontaneously to address a hazard or threat.  This year’s Forum recognized this in part by inviting youth groups and leaders and heads of local community organizations and projects to speak during specific sessions. While this is a good first step, these informal actors clearly need more recognition.

Preventative actions of governments and official bodies are crucial, but in practice, adaptation is primarily an organic process. Individuals cope with, learn from, and innovate based on their experience of events. Action is not always immediate – it takes time and it involves trial-and-error. Building resilience to climate-related impacts and enabling adaptation, however, are often limited due to the scale of the challenge. Though the Forum addresses these resilience and adaptation measures through reviewing what governments, international organizations, advocacy groups, and knowledge producers are doing, it does not always provide an equal platform for at-risk and marginal communities.

Participation by these groups in these gatherings and in the wider climate change adaptation dialogue is a perennial challenge. If events such as the Forum exist to engage these communities, why do they not have greater representation?  While there are valid reasons to hold such meetings in their current formats, it is time to push the envelope, to be creative with our approach, and to engage widely and inclusively. If we are to support the crux of climate change adaption – autonomous action from local communities and people – we need to provide them a meaningful and proactive platform so that we can support them and provide opportunities for scaling up usable insights. As the UNFCC 1.5°C report warns of the dire consequences if we fail to act now, conferences such as the APAN Forum are necessary to share successes and to develop a roadmap for the future. The key challenge before us now is to provide more space in them for those who have experienced the impacts first-hand, so that they can meaningfully share what they know, can learn from each other, and become empowered to avert threats and reduce damages to their communities. Only when we provide this open and interactive space for the at-risk and marginal actors, will we be able to achieve the transformational climate change adaptation we need in Asia and the Pacific.