World Resource Institute

A Review of Four Distinct Responses from a Puzzle of a Question

By Ian Burton, Independent Scholar and Consultant


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?


A question is addressed to four authors: "Is the way we currently plan for the future and react to unexpected change sufficient to accommodate the uncertainty, scale, long lead time, and complexity associated with climate impacts?" This is a commentary I have been invited to make on all four papers collectively. However they are so diverse that I find it impossible to respond to them as a group and have to comment on them individually.

On closer inspection Question #1 contains at least 8 questions. These relate to each of the four "dimensions" of uncertainty, scale, long lead time, and complexity. Multiply these four by 2 for both "currently plan" and "react to unexpected", and 4 x 2 = 8.

Not content with this, the WRI puzzle writers also want to know if an entirely new approach might be needed. What needs to change and why, and/or how current practices should be harnessed to plan for and react to climate risks today and in the future?

Enough already! Before you go on fishing trip please decide on what kind of fish you want to catch. Whales, and sharks, and dolphins, are not the same as trout, and salmon and crabs!

Perhaps this helps to explain why the four authors each respond to the question(s) in widely differing ways. As I read it Swanson et. al. draw on a recently published book  (Swanson and Bhadwal 2009) to advocate their "proposition" that  greater appreciation is needed for existing  adaptive policies. They go on to describe seven practices none of which separately or together, represent "an entirely new approach". Their answer in summary seems to be that - "we are doing it; we know how to do it; but we are not doing it enough and what we do is done much too slowly".

The Mehra first paragraph poses two alternatives - are current practices able to cope or is an entirely new approach required? From subsequent paragraphs it is clear that Malini believes that current practices (governance systems) are inadequate (ill-equipped) and that an entirely new approach is needed - what she calls for is "not only considerable evolution but a cultural change..." She then goes on to advocate the elements that need to be included in the cultural change. Malini wants to see climate change totally recast, away from being simply and myopically regarded as an environmental issue to a much more broadly conceived problem which is global; inter-generational; complex; strategic, and  long-term, and which  lies at the heart of government.

Shiv Someshwar adopts a more scientific and technical approach to the question(s). He explains how climate risks are currently managed and has generally complementary things to say. Shiv concludes that "most socio-economic systems can manage (well enough) albeit at some cost", although he points out that they are too reactive and lack sufficient understanding of the dynamic nature of climate vulnerability. Shiv is less sanguine about future climate risks. He advocates "better understanding of thresholds of risk in current systems"; "a politically-mediated process to derive an "acceptable level" of climate resiliency of socio-economic systems"; and claims that "non-climate shocks or trends are also as critical as the climate component".

Saleemul Huq sets up some familiar dichotomies to entice you in. Adaptation has to be about ways of dealing with migrants and relocation as well as adaptation in situ. Adaptation is almost the same as sustainable development and it also needs to be science-oriented and build more awareness and capacity. Adaptation is both top-down and bottom-up and North can learn from South. Saleem places himself closer to Malini Mehra than to Swanson or Someshwar; we should "think of a new paradigm of learning and decision-making..."

The four papers can be ranked according to the degree with which they seem to be more or less content with current practice as being sufficent or think that a cultural change or a paradigm shift is needed. My assessment ranks the papers as follows from most wanting change (radical) to least, or thinking that the present planning is sufficient with incremental improvements:

  1. Malina Mehra
  2. Saleemul Huq
  3. Swanson et. al.
  4. Shiv Someshwar.

So what do I have to say? What is my commentary? I have five things to say, stimulated by my reading of these papers from four leaders in the adaptation field. From atomic scale to galactic they are:

  1. I sympathize with the authors who have been asked to respond to a multitude of questions disguised as one! I share your pain!
  2. I am apprehensive about the exponential growth in the use of the word "adaptation" and the way it is coming to mean too much to too many. It is in danger of following the fate of "sustainable development", in being a crucial concept that has lost most if not all of its meaning. Never say "adaptation" alone and by itself, but always qualify it, to limit its meaning to what it is that you are trying to talk about.Example: anticipatory adaptation in agriculture (specifically plant selection/breeding or modifying cultivar resilience for tea plantations in Darjeeling or winter wheat in Saskatchewan).
  3. I want to have it both ways! We have to work away at incremental improvements in governance; in frustrating negotiations; in science; and in awareness.  At the same time it only makes sense if we recognise that this is not simply an exercise in muddling through. Major transformation is needed and needed sooner rather than later.  
  4. What is the nature of the major transformation? There are many components. Two at the top of my list are: 1) a radically changed and improved system of global governance. We face a plethora of global scale problems for which the United Nations system as presently constructed is inadequate. 2) We need to find ways of weaning ourselves off the consumer economy in which the pursuit of happiness is equated with how much we can buy. 
  5. Underlying our condition are the human propensities (to put it mildly) for pride and greed. When will we ever learn?