Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: beyond fragmented responses

Geoff O'Brien, Phil O'Keefe

Research output: Book/ReportBook

2 Citations (Scopus)


Resilience is the buzz word. From local government to climate change, resilience drips everywhere. It emphasises the ability of people to adapt to changing, often threatening, situations. Adaptation, that is thoughtful, planned action to make a world that is more secure, is one of the unique characteristics of being human. So why are we concerned about the current use of resilience? Firstly a negative. Politicians increasingly use the phrase to cover up the lack of intervention. Community resilience is simply another way of saying there is no investment except for what you generate yourself. It is a big time cop-out as politicians try and rescue the financial institutions that created so much uncertainty and hardship in the first place. It is a cover up for the “Big Society” that will not happen without collective investment, an investment that must start with rich people paying for a social future in proportion to their wealth. At the heart of resilience is the recognition that adaptation can only be generated as a shared future if poverty alleviation is the key driver. As current neo-liberal politics generates poverty, building resilience requires over-turning the current version of capitalism and political leadership that supports it. Do not allow current political leadership to claim the term resilience when it really means, in their words, “We are not in this together”. Secondly, because the material drive is for poverty alleviation, resilience debates have to be focused in and around both global and local initiatives. At a global level, the two key debates are about the delivery of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), essentially about the creation and sharing of wealth, and the need to address climate change as the dominant threat to the global commons. Both of these debates are couched in the language of sustainable development where, if Rio+20 is to be a guide as well as the failure to generate a post-Kyoto climate agreement, there is a demonstrated erosion of commitment to action. The absence of equity as the key to sustainability, and thus building resilience, is the horrifying silence of international negotiations conducted by nation states. Thirdly, it is this absence that takes us back to unpacking the climate change negotiations to see what precisely went wrong. The science is robust and peer reviewed despite the nay-sayers. The popular take (“Where is the global warming?) is a mis-direction. The science indicates an acceleration of global warming (i.e. there is already a period of warming only it is getting faster) because of increased green house gas emissions. These increased green house gases are associated with the gas releases, particularly carbon, that are generated in modern economies. To address the threat, resilience capacity must allow for mitigation and adaptation, respectively technologies to stop us harming ourselves and harming nature. Fourthly, even where we are making interventions, they continue to be self-serving. Mitigation, implying the creation of new technologies, significantly over shadows adaptation, making livelihoods less resilient. In many ways this is no surprise because it is the developed countries that dominate the discussion and financing of climate change, creating a 21st century bio-imperialism. But as environmental threat intermingles with financial catastrophe, the hope of a renewables, energy efficient future fades against a background of increasingly dirty fuels, including tar sands, and expanding exploration into pristine environments such as the Artic. Adaptation is mere lip service from developed countries. Fifthly, even if mitigation were successful, it is essentially a subset of adaptation. Within both the development debate itself and the climate change debate, adaptation is seen as a major challenge for developing countries. The irony is a political economy of adaptation where those who are least guilty of carbon crime pay the penalty of its impact. Resilience building is denied and instead local communities are urged by the developed world to build disaster risk reduction strategies. There are two problems, however, namely that misunderstanding the nature of those at risk and then ensuring the response system is not centrally controlled. The misunderstanding of those at risk begins by stating that Risk=Vulnerability x Hazard. This is an unworkable equation, not simply because it cannot be transposed, but because a vulnerability argument is one that understands that the nature of everyday life both constructs risk but simultaneously ranks those risks lower than other problems of daily life. Putting Hazard into the equation simply repeats the limitations of traditional disaster paradigms. Moreover, there is clear evidence that political structures can only do top down interventions as the people cannot be trusted. Despite the language of empowerment, there is none. Except to say “Make yourselves Resilient”, and sub voce, “Without Resources from Us”. Sixthly, we argue that the problem essentially originates in a misunderstanding of development. The material evidence that strikes us is that China has moved 300 million people out of poverty in ten years, an unprecedented feat at the start of the 21st century. It has successfully done so without a neo-liberal approach to development while those who pursue such politics stagnate or go backwards. For at least a generation, the focus of development has been the delivery of sustainability where three competing interpretations vie for dominance. Is it sustainability of the environment, the market, or the people to be the central thrust of sustainable development? The first two interpretations argue from equilibrium, respecting only the status quo: the third suggests no equilibrium, only evolution, rapid evolution even revolution. That is our preferred interpretation of sustainable development within an understanding of human rights. We find, however, very similar underpinnings to the three interpretations of resilience: two favour equilibrium and leave things as they are while the third seeks evolution, progress. Mapping institutions suggests we have limited governance structures to both sustainability and resilience efforts. Finally, in seeking progress, we put people first. Centrally we wish to achieve a common wealth of entitlements. To ensure that means that we have to build social capital in governance structures we trust. It requires a model of learning not just from individual mistakes but from lost opportunity, that are frequently lost lives and livelihoods. It requires meaningful structures of governance beyond the emptiness of elections where on a day to day people’s demands are heard. And we know what the demand is, a right to common wealth and a rejection of the erosion of entitlements and thus resilience. The demands are openly socialist in intention. But these demands are built on the best science available by and to us at the beginning of the 21st century that indicates current capitalist regimes are doomed to failure not just of the regimes but the people they control. It is exciting to have a challenge for change, initially by exploring resilience and then beyond. A lutta continua.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages218
ISBN (Print)9780415600941
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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