World Resource Institute

Adaptation to Climate Change Challenges Government Organization and Governance

By Neil Adger, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK


Commentaries were commissioned by the World Resources Report to react to the Expert Perspectives series. This commentary responds to Question 1: Does climate change require new approaches to making decisions?


Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a challenge to the organisation of government, as highlighted in many of the commentaries here. But it is also a challenge to governance - in other words to the way governments act and to their remit of responsibility for action to manage risks across society. In an era of climate uncertainty governments will likely have to do more, not less, governing of risk. And given that adaptation is essentially local, they are likely to have to facilitate the development of decentralised and inclusive decision-making, which is always a challenge to the centralising tendencies of government.

One key element of adaptation is the ability to shape one's own future and the agency to affect one's own resilience, both individually and collectively. Human security is enhanced through access to decision-making and the empowering effect of participation in planning for the future under new climate risks as well as through the material outcomes and consequences of those decisions. Hence it follows that issues of process and of procedural fairness are central to adaptation.

Successful adaptation requires fair process and fair outcomes

Saleemul Huq's commentary has highlighted how vulnerability occurs and is geographically highly uneven. The vulnerable find it difficult to adapt for two reasons. First, they tend to be highly exposed, highly sensitive and have low adaptive capacity - this is how vulnerability is defined in analysis of climate change. There are many examples of where low adaptive capacity translates into inability to adapt, sometimes with disastrous consequences, even involving relocation of people and settlements.

The second reason that the vulnerable find it difficult to adapt is that they have limited access to power. Thus they find it difficult to access public assistance and external resources. In other words, the capacity to adapt to climate change impacts is intimately bound up with capacity to access decision-makers, engage in political processes, and access resources at times of crisis. It is this second reason that is overlooked in the governance of climate change and which I will focus on here.

Adaptation involves issues of fair process as well as fair outcomes.  Without decision-making structures that recognize how vulnerability is created and perpetuated, fair outcomes will only ever be coincidental.  Indeed some philosophical positions insist that fair process is the only necessary condition for justice: as long as the rules and process are right, everyone (or at least most) will go along with the outcome.  Fair process in democratic structures is certainly important for the legitimacy of decisions concerning outcomes.

What do I mean by fair process? First I mean that vulnerable groups have representation in decisions about their own future and the climate-related risks they face. But representation and formal decisions are not enough - think of water management committees, shoreline management plans, or protected areas for conservation. Having people in the front line of impacts represented on decision-making is only part of the story. Think too of national adaptation planning processes. Representation of vulnerable groups is surely not enough for fair process. Relevant information at the appropriate scale and in appropriate language would appear to another pre-requisite. But what about people and even non-human species that cannot attend such formal decision-making processes? Both representation and voice are not straightforward matters.

Fair decision-making on adaptation, therefore, concerns how and by whom decisions on adaptive responses are made, the recognition and participation of individual voices, and ultimately the legitimacy of the decisions. Fairness in access to decision-making pertains to individuals, groups or nations.  The issue of precisely where fairness lies is contested by theorists of democratic decision-making - some stress differences among individual citizens that need to be addressed in fair process, while others argue for collective and group representation. Indigenous peoples, for example, are often marginalized within their own countries or recognize themselves as a group united by their culture across more than one neighboring country. Appealing to citizenship may not be relevant for all. Procedural fairness is interpreted through fairness in rules concerning resources to deal with decision-making elements such as voice, recognition and representation.

A society wide response

Adaptation is not simply about reducing risk. It is about creating the conditions for response, not only within a central structure, but throughout society.  Ensuring widespread response capacity provides the flexibility required to address uncertain and unpredictable changes. For many decades decentralized, deliberative bodies have been increasingly promoted as a way to help engage the participation of all citizens in decision-making, creating bodies that are more flexible and responsive to local needs. The composition and attributes of these bodies differ between contexts but the basic premises are the same. In the first instance some common goals and views on the common good are important. The bodies should also encompass the ideals of inclusiveness, representativeness, procedural fairness, deliberativeness, publicity, equality, transparency, and legitimacy, although different arrays of characteristics are apparent in different situations. Since climate change adaptation involves collective decision-making at diverse scales, from the UNFCCC through to co-operation between neighbouring farmers on their irrigation, modes of governance are diverse as well as interconnected. There is no idealised situation or blueprint.

What are the benefits of including people in making decisions about climate change risks? I suggest there are three. First, shared management of resources provides the space for learning: about other people and about the environment and resources at risk. Decisions taken in this manner are often considered one step in an iterative process, and people use mistakes as a basis for re-evaluating and reorienting goals and strategies. Such information could come from standard monitoring but also from local knowledge systems that provide insights into functioning of local ecosystems and their linkages with actual resource use.

Second, sharing decisions enhances trust. Where there are numerous actors they often have divergent and often incommensurable values. Approaching the management of risks through deliberative co-management provides pathways to overcoming management difficulties and, in short, making better decisions. Such processes increase trust in government and increase capacity at local scale to undertake, for example, monitoring and enforcement. In addition, greater participation gives voice to vulnerable and marginalised stakeholders, enables recognition of diverse needs and knowledge systems, and increases the depth of civil society and citizenship.

Third, greater participation in managing risks has other benefits. Weather related risks are only one of a number of complex issues that society must deal with. In particular, the need to decarbonise economic activity everywhere directly affects the climate. Hence, structures for environmental governance can help meet the challenge of energy planning, decarbonisation and climate and weather related risks in the round.