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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

July-August 2009

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Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change: Strengthening Resilience through Development

I nternational efforts to reduce and sequester carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are not yet slowing the rate of global warming. Indeed, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipates rapid changes in climate even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced quickly, and recent findings suggest that these projections are underestimated. The impacts of climate change will be severe, particularly for the most vulnerable developing countries that have the least capacity to cope. As a result, the need to support adaptation in developing countries is growing in urgency.

Adaptation describes adjustments in natural or human systems in response to the impacts of climate change. Until recently, adaptation was a controversial topic in climate change policy debates, with many arguing that too much attention to adaptation—considered locally focused, inexpensive, and beneficial only in the short term—could detract from more expensive mitigation efforts for the global good. In his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore says, “Believing that we can adapt to just about anything is ultimately a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time.”

However, the tide is turning. Given slow progress on mitigation coupled with evidence of greater and more rapid impacts of climate change than those previously expected by the IPCC, adaptation is firmly on the international policy agenda as a crucial supplement to mitigation. Signaling this change, Gore stated in a recent interview with The Economist, “I used to think adaptation subtracted from our efforts on prevention. But I’ve changed my mind. . . . Poor countries are vulnerable and need our help.”

One growing proposal calls for a community-based approach to adaptation. Community-based adaptation operates at the local level in communities that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It identifies, assists, and implements community-based development activities that strengthen the capacity of local people to adapt to living in a riskier and less predictable climate. Moreover, community-based adaptation generates adaptation strategies through participatory processes, involving local stakeholders and development and disaster risk–reduction practitioners. It builds on existing cultural norms and addresses local development concerns that make people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the first place. Three international conferences on community-based adaptation have been organized by international organizations and think tanks since 2005, with policymakers, researchers, and development organizations among the attendees. Community-based adaptation projects are now in operation in vulnerable communities in developing and some developed countries.

Yet fundamental challenges and uncertainties remain about the interpretation of adaptation policy, which in turn affects the implementation of community-based adaptation. What is adaptation to climate change (versus more general climatic variability)? Who or what adapts—and how? How does community-based adaptation fit with larger-scale adaptation policies and programs? Early debates about community-based adaptation, and adaptation in general, are grappling with these questions. In addition, examples in vulnerable communities in Bangladesh help illuminate the role and value of community-based adaptation, its limitations, and its potential to help integrate concerns about vulnerability and development into wider climate change policy.

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