Is it time for a more pessimistic view about climate adaptation?

  • By Laurie Goering
  • 04/07/2018

Newly internally displaced women from drought-hit area sit with their children as they wait for help in Dollow, Somalia April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


At the Adaptation Futures conference in Cape Town recently, those working on efforts to help people adjust to changes to the climate already underway – and prepare for the ones that are coming – confessed to a nagging disquiet.

While efforts to harvest more rainwater, help farmers plant hardier crops and protect more water-absorbing wetlands are ongoing, will they be enough? As temperatures rise, bringing even more erratic rainfall, bigger storms and worsening conflicts over food and water, will today’s solutions come undone?

“We should always keep in mind that something we never thought of could happen,” warned one participant at a session digging into adaptation failures, in which participants were assured of anonymity to encourage honesty.

For many people working on climate adaptation issues, the experts suggested, there is a growing disconnect between the optimistic work of helping people find ways to adapt to climate changes and an underlying and often unspoken nagging worry that it may not work in the long run.

In some places, “we’re running fast but not keeping up with the problem,” said one person running a land restoration effort. “We think, ‘What the hell are we actually doing?’”

Often, among people working on adaptation, there’s a sense that if one – or a few – particular roadblocks could be overcome, from a lack of political engagement to a lack of funding – solutions that could work would take root, participants said.

But “there’s a disconnect between our experiences and this idea we’ll transform everything if we just fix this one problem,” one admitted. “Might there always be small things to do before we can get to the big work?”

Worst, “is adaptation trying to fix the symptoms, and not the causes?” asked another. As extreme weather and other pressures make it harder for people to escape poverty, is a focus on adapting to that overlooking equally big pressures, such as overpopulation and rapid urbanisation?

Among many people working on dealing with climate shifts, “I think there’s an underlying misery, and some skeletons that need to be aired,” one adaptation expert admitted.

The “cognitive dissonance” problem facing climate adaptation specialists is one already well-studied among climate scientists, who must stick to dispassionate scientific analysis in their work while recognising that some of their findings mean millions of people may struggle to thrive – or simply survive – in the near future.

“They know what they know and still have to get on with their daily lives,” one participant said. That “spiritual and moral struggle” can cause depression, and struggles finding a way to “live constructively and hopefully”, she said.

For people trying to drive effective adaptation to climate change, “I think realism and pessimism are a lot closer (to the right world view) than optimism,” she said.


But that hardly means it’s time to step back from efforts to drive effective adaptation, the experts said. On the contrary, it’s more likely that adaptation will work if those planning it keep in mind that the unexpected may happen – and probably will.

“You should never think you are just on track and it will lead you to your goal,” said one participant. “You need flexibility.”

“There are always barriers, impediments, rabbit holes you fall down. That’s the real world” – and it’s one at odds with the “happy face” adaptation sometimes puts on, another added.

But there are some steps that can help people working on adaptation prevent burnout and achieve more effective results.

They include recognising that adaptation – and climate change itself – are political issues, and paying attention to the politics surrounding the work rather than assuming that adaptation work is apolitical.

Being forthright with adaptation funders about how much “transformation” can be achieved in a couple of years is also key.

When donors fund short-term projects and expect big change – or want to fund things that likely won’t work - “we need to be standing up and saying, ‘Take your money and shove it,’” one participant said.

Simply talking more about adaptation failures and sharing often unspoken anxieties – rather than worrying that “if we want to keep the money flowing, we better show success” – also can help, the experts said.

“It’s good to be a pessimist – but an informed pessimist,” one said.

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