Let’s talk about the climate!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011 00:14 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The increasing unpredictability and variability of the weather and the rise in the number and severity of natural disasters such as floods, droughts and storms of late has brought in a more serious tone to our daily conversations about the weather.

While weather is what we experience over short periods of time, these manifestations give us a hint of a larger global phenomenon. A phenomenon called climate change that is causing long term changes in weather patterns and climatic conditions.

The finger points to us (humans) as the main culprits responsible for these changes as our populations and consumption patterns increase our requirements for creature comforts – food, energy, housing, income and entertainment, leading to excess green house gases being trapped in the atmosphere; beyond the capabilities of the natural filtering system.

Human progress and wellbeing has come at a cost; a cost to the environment. However the tables seem to be turning, even the most modest predictions of climate change imply that things are spiralling out of control, resulting in more unfavourable prospects of increasing temperatures, droughts, floods and disasters. We are faced with scenarios that may reverse the “progress” that we have made.

Like most things in this world, the causes and impacts of climate change are and will be unequal. It will disproportionately impact developing countries as they have less resources, infrastructure, and capacity to withstand or recover from external shocks. This scenario has already been played out for us if we consider how the tsunami affected Sri Lanka (in 2004) and Japan (in 2011), showing a marked difference in how we were able to cope and recover from it.

The frequency of smaller disasters such as floods and droughts and how we deal with them is also significant. The most recent incidences of flooding, in late 2010 and early this year, wreaked havoc on Sri Lanka’s main paddy crop. This had a domino effect that spiralled from the farmers and their families in local economies to national level issues such as food security, health expenditure and trade.

Hence the consequences of a weather event are not always isolated and location specific. Its impacts have a ripple effect that emphasises how the environment is intrinsically woven into our wellbeing – as individuals, families, communities and nations.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the South Asian region is one region that is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, mainly due to the fact that it is home to 40% of the world’s poor whose economic and social wellbeing targets have yet to be achieved.

The poor more often than not, are not just economically marginalised but also rely on degraded natural resources to make a living (i.e. unfertile land), live in environmentally sensitive areas (i.e. areas prone to landslides, flooding) and have less access to physical materials needed to improve their lives. This also means that they are ill equipped to deal with disasters.

Hence they will need greater support from the state and non-state actors to be better prepared, protected and enabled to recover from these shocks. This raises a new challenge for developing countries that have to meet economic growth and wellbeing ambitions, along with better climate protection infrastructure and services while also reducing its toll on the environment.

In order to develop in a climate conscious way it is necessary to integrate environmental safeguards into development policy and programmes and more importantly practice – at all levels. Within this context there is a growing lobby for building “adaptive capacity” that encompasses building up the capabilities, gearing up institutions, setting aside resources of a country to effectively adapt/change its practices and achieve a sustainable balance.

This is a daunting task, not merely due to the uncertainties and complex technical nature of the science, but given the inter-relatedness and inter-connected nature of all things to do with the environment. It will require integration that cuts across economic, social, cultural and political domains.

Proper integration is also heavily reliant on the buy-in of a range of institutions, actors and stakeholders at every level that come from different backgrounds and standpoints; often with competing agendas (i.e. economic growth versus conservation), different concepts of wellbeing that determines quality of life, religious, cultural and geographic variations and technological solutions. The impacts of integration also have to filter through broad policies to practice, that will reach the smallest unit of a household.

So after many years of talking about climate change as a serious threat to our survival it seems to be finally taking root. Political support has been acknowledged and different actors from policy makers, the private sector to farmers are starting to internalise the ideas and are trying to experiment with how this can be done. These attempts to integrate are guided by various frameworks and tools.

There are international conventions (UN Framework on climate change) specifically on climate change and others such as the Hyogo Framework for disaster risk reduction that are being “climatised” to increase international exposure, commitments and buy in for integration at global and regional level.

Within countries, climate change and sustainable development policies are being formulated to guide the process while tools such as Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA), vulnerability and hazard mapping are being used as decision making tools to identify areas of intervention.

At a more project level, sustainable livelihood frameworks are being used to generate more holistic development interventions. Tools such as citizen score cards are being used to bring voice to local communities and to bring in community voice to lobby for action. Actor-based approaches are being used to unravel some of the inter-relationships that have to be identified in order to reconcile different sectoral agendas.

These processes become an important part of figuring out ways in which this integration can happen and how we can learn from these experiences in order to create the critical mass needed to take it from isolated cases tried out by a few people to wider use.

Several of these proposed approaches and methodologies will be discussed – weighing their pros and cons – by those who have been involved in experimenting with them in a panel on climate change at CEPA’s colloquium on Imperatives to Understanding Poverty on 30 June 2011. For further details see www.cepa.lk/colloquium.