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Meet the Experts: Q&A with Christina Chan

Christina Chan joined WRI in May as Director for the Climate Resilience Practice. Before that, Christina led global policy efforts on adaptation at the U.S. State Department and spent eight years with CARE, helping communities reduce disaster-related risks and leveraging that work to inform CARE International’s global climate change policy. Here she shares her thoughts on the challenges ahead.

Insights: What do you view as the biggest obstacles to building resilience to climate change?

Christina Chan: There are several obstacles. First, the people who are most vulnerable―for example, those in drought-stricken areas―often lack access to climate information. Farmers would be able to make better decisions about what to plant and when to plant if they had information about when the rainy season will start and how much rainfall is expected.

Second, we need to stop treating climate resilience as just an environmental issue. Climate change is undermining hard-won development gains. We need to develop the capacity of communities, local and national governments, engineers and coastal zone managers to identify climate risks and take actions to manage those risks.

A third major obstacle is finance. I’ve seen cases where communities galvanize to identify what’s at risk and options to reduce these risks. But then they lack the budget to take the necessary actions.

Food shortages caused by climate change could have a major impact on national and global security. How do we begin to address this risk?

CC: With support from the Gates Foundation, WRI is exploring how investments in transformative adaptation in the agriculture sector can yield greater food security. The international community needs to continue helping farmers make smarter seasonal and annual decisions in the context of climate change. At the same time, we also need to be thinking longer-term and identifying what actions we can take now that will contribute to positive, transformative change.

How has your professional background informed your thinking on adaptation policy?

CC: My experience in leading a community-based disaster risk management project in southern Nepal for CARE taught me that adaptation and development go hand in hand, and good governance is critical. Poor, marginalized communities are dealing with a whole slew of challenges. Their basic rights to food, water, participation, you name it, are barely met, if at all. Climate change is yet another threat on their lives and livelihoods. Participation, transparency, equity and accountability are at the heart of any solution, whether we are trying to eradicate poverty or reduce climate vulnerability.

During my time at the State Department, I focused on raising awareness and mobilizing action and support for adaptation through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. While at times I felt the UNFCCC process to be slow, and change excruciatingly incremental, I never doubted the importance of the international process for strengthening climate resilience. Decisions of the UNFCCC help shine a bright light on what is working and what requires further action and support.

How can countries best determine what their priorities for resilience are?

CC: Countries should start with what they care about most―what are their development priorities? What do they want to achieve when it comes to food security, water, infrastructure, rural development, etc.? And from there, they can seek to understand the risks that climate change poses on these priorities, and what measures they need to take to manage those risks. That’s the best way, I think, to determine resilience priorities.

What forms will resilience projects take?

CC: Nations across the world are already implementing creative solutions that build resilience to climate change. In Mali, the water and agriculture ministries collaborate to send farmers text messages with information on rain forecasts. In Kuala Lumpur, innovative infrastructure like the SMART tunnel serves a dual purpose: it not only alleviates rush hour traffic, but also shuts down when there is heavy rainfall and diverts rainwater to the river, to prevent flooding in the city center. In the U.S., Philadelphia has changed its water fee system, simultaneously helping the city to meet its Clean Water Act obligations and adapt to projected increases in extreme rainfall.

In India and Brazil, WRI is helping city planners make decisions about adaptation actions that truly reflect the priorities and needs of local communities and people. We are also building the capacity of local civil society to hold national governments accountable – with the objective of making sure that funds for international climate adaptation actually reach local communities and address their needs and priorities.

These are just a few examples. With leadership and funding, we can find dynamic solutions that build resilience to the negative impacts of climate change.

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