Transformation is a word we use so often in our daily lives that it seems strange to stop and think about what it really means. But in adaptation circles, the definition and role of transformation has recently become a hot topic of conversation, in part because transformational change was an important theme of the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

The issue of transformational change is vital for ensuring effective adaptation. The climate change challenge is vast, and while adaptation efforts have increased over the past decade, there is the danger of too few small-scale adaptation interventions failing to protect the most vulnerable people. Despite increased funding for adaptation, the total amount is still limited, and tends to be focused on short time horizons.

A growing number of funders, experts, and adaptation practitioners question whether addressing climate change requires fundamental changes in how our society functions, including “paradigm shifts” in our values and decision-making. Lisa Schipper, an expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute, notes that “Adaptation was always meant to be transformational, but it somehow lost its edge; it lost its spunk and it became just another term for development.”

Now “transformation” has made its mark in the latest IPCC report. But many questions remain about what transformation really means—and these unanswered questions make it more difficult to fund, operationalize, and measure effective adaptation.

We Need Criteria to Identify and Facilitate Transformation

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report defines transformation as “adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects.” The authors propose that transformational adaptation could include adaptation at greater scale or magnitude, the introduction of new technologies or practices, the formation of new structures or systems of governance, or shifts in the location of activities. Meanwhile, incremental adaptation accounts for actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given scale.

Although this gives us a common starting place, adaptation practitioners and funders have not yet clarified what counts as transformative—and that poses a major challenge to facilitating transformational adaptation.

For instance, it seems like transformation requires change at a large scale, but what scale does an intervention need to reach in order to qualify as transformational? And, should scale focus on geographic scale or the number of people impacted? If we include the number of people impacted by the change as a criterion, should their vulnerability to climate change impacts also be taken into account? Similarly, for a change to fundamentally alter a system, it seems like it needs to be long-term, if not irreversible. But how long is long enough for an intervention to qualify as transformational?

Why Transformation Matters

All of this might seem like academic quibbling in the face of an urgent problem, but the way a term like “transformation” is used actually has major influence on adaptation projects going forward. First, funders, such as those involved in the UNFCCC Green Climate Fund, understandably want their grants to fund truly game-changing adaptation interventions. But without concrete criteria for what that means, funding “transformational adaptation” becomes subjective. Second, it follows that in order to operationalize a transformative policy or program, we need to understand the capacity and conditions needed. Third, to measure its success, we need establish indicators and benchmarks that move us beyond business-as-usual adaptation. Therefore, without criteria, we cannot fund or operationalize transformation.

We also need to remember that fundamental, systemic shifts have the potential to be positive, but they can also be highly disruptive, or even devastating. For instance, forced migration away from eroding coastlines would certainly transform both the lives of those who have to migrate and the communities to which migrants flow. Policymakers have a responsibility to prepare for such unplanned transformations that may occur due to climate change. Funders and other advocates of transformation need to help policymakers and planners recognize when transformational shifts may occur, and can help them plan to mitigate the potential negative consequences.

We Need More Examples of Transformation

Without clear criteria, finding concrete examples of transformation remains a challenge. Some examples of potentially transformational adaptation appear in the literature (such as the ongoing re-greening of the Sahel and the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan), but debates rage as to which ones “count”—and which ones should serve as models for adaptation planning and investment.

For instance, the authors of a paper on transformational adaptation have deemed the development of heat-resistant maize in Africa “transformative.” They posit that this is a fundamental and systemic shift away from the past, because the new maize strain is crafted through a unique public-private partnership, will be made available for 25 years without royalties, and will be distributed in conjunction with the best agronomic practices. The combination of partners, mix of technological and institutional solutions, and cost-free distribution to farmers over a long time horizon might make this effort transformative.

If future adaptation funders want to support transformative adaptation, should they replicate this intervention? Having criteria and examples can help practitioners who seek adaptation funding know what they can propose, even if it is significantly more ambitious than past efforts. If adaptation practitioners want to assess whether and how fundamentally this intervention has altered farming in Africa, will they use new methods and indicators for monitoring and evaluating the intervention? Having criteria for measuring transformative adaptation will help gauge success, and guide best practice.

We Have More Questions than Answers

We can assume that transformation will have life-altering consequences, because it is systemic and results from a shift in paradigms and values. But how can these consequences be managed across different sections of society with differential vulnerability to climate change impacts? In transformation, there are likely to be both winners and losers.

With all its complexity, “transformation” as a concept has the potential to facilitate more effective adaptation. In order to fund, implement, measure, and prove transformation in adaptation, funders, practitioners, and researchers will have incentives to work over longer time horizons on interventions that have bigger impacts. However, we should take care not to get side-tracked by the allure of transformation before we have a clear understanding of what it entails.