People in the West African country of Senegal like to eat rice. In fact, it has become their most important staple food over the past 40-odd years. And while most of the world’s rice is eaten in the countries where it’s grown, Senegal gets most of theirs from Asian countries like India, Thailand, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Southeast Asia produces much of its rice in low-lying coastal and delta zones – zones that will be slowly flooded and salinized as climate change leads the sea level to rise. Drought and saltier soils may do their part to threaten rice production further.

So what happens if Asian countries produce less rice as a result of climate change, and – in order to feed its own population – stops international exports?

Thai worker loads rice into a bag
India, Thailand and Vietnam are the world’s largest rice exporters. Photo: Chumsak Kanoknan / Getty Images .

International trade moves comparatively small amounts of rice across country borders, so prices can fluctuate significantly when few countries suddenly enter or leave the international rice market. Back in 2007–2008, Senegal found out what this means.

India – a major rice producer – stopped its exports, sparking a chain reaction throughout global markets and making prices skyrocket in Senegal. Protesters in the capital, Dakar, threw stones and set tires and rubbish on fire as a sign of their anger.

Climate impacts cross borders through different pathways

The rice connection between Asia and Africa is one example of how climate change may impact one location and have repercussions elsewhere. There are many more. Germany, for instance, imports almost a third of its coffee from Brazil – a country in which the land used for coffee production is vulnerable to higher and more variable temperatures brought about by climate change.

Trade flows are one pathway for climate change impacts to cross national borders, but climate change also changes flows of people, finance, and ecosystem services such as water resources from transboundary river basins.


Infographic that details four pathways along which climate risk crosses borders


This is what we analyse at SEI in our research on transboundary climate risk, along with our partners at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the Institute for Sustainable and International Relations (IDDRI).

Rethinking adaptation responses from local to global

For all that we already know about how climate change impacts cross borders, it has been largely up to local and national authorities to respond. The old mantra that “adaptation is local” still shapes realities. To go back to the example of Senegal: it is up to each country in Asia to protect their coastal lands from erosion or build desalination plants. There is little that Senegal, in Africa – a country that ultimately depends on the success of this adaptation – can do about it.

Rice farmer in Vietnam
A Vietnamese farmer tests a rice variety that is tolerant to drought in a CGIAR project. Photo: G. Smith, CIAT / Flickr .

The Paris Agreement does state that “adaptation is a global challenge faced by all”. It also establishes the “global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.”

Yet it’s currently no-one’s job to manage transboundary climate risk. National adaptation plans don’t take it into account, nor do international climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Launching the Adaptation Without Borders initiative

That is what we at SEI, ODI and IDDRI intend to change by launching the Adaptation Without Borders initiative. This initiative brings together our research capacities, convening powers, and strengths of other partners to explore global implications of transboundary climate risks.

Together we will continue to gather evidence, bringing visibility to this important but often over-looked dimension of climate risk; and build connections between stakeholders to inspire action.

We have already taken the first steps. We have published our research results on transboundary climate risks together. And earlier this year, we – in association with Wilton Park and the Global Center on Adaptation – convened 40 stakeholders from 19 countries to discuss this topic. Out of this came the clear call to “convene dialogues between relevant actors and induce change in adaptation processes so that a cross-border lens can be better applied and accounted for in practice”.

In setting up the Adaptation Without Borders initiative, we are acting on this call.

The effects of climate change are global – they require adaptation solutions beyond the efforts of any single government. We see a gap in the current governance of adaptation for managing transboundary climate risks. By inspiring policymakers and practitioners, we will work to establish adaptation as a truly global public good.