Natural climate solutions sound great but they aren’t sustainable and fair to local people by default. These schemes must be carefully managed to ensure benefits for biodiversity and for the people who bear the brunt of climate change.
The clearest injustice of the climate crisis is that those that will face its harshest impacts bear the least responsibility.
Calls to highlight the necessary role of climate change adaptation have been considered a smokescreen for delay on taking meaningful action. Perhaps understandably, adaptation has received little media attention. This is a double edged sword. It has taken the poorest, most vulnerable countries to push the UNFCCC climate negotiations to recognise adaptation needs.
Many future climate change impacts like droughts, flooding, loss of habitable land and related migrations are already locked in, making adaptation a priority. In the face of such impacts, we need nuanced discourses of adaptation to avoid climate action tokenism that adds insult to injury.
In this context adaptation risks being seen as a political football whose marginal status can hide important considerations. Adaptation interventions – such as those we have studied – are claimed to deliver cross cutting benefits to society. Adaptation is often seen as benign with few negative effects, even sustainable by definition. However different interpretations of adaptation dictate how it plays out on the ground.
One especially benign interpretation – no regrets’ in climate lingo – is called Nature Based Solutions (NBS). Nature-based solutions for climate adaptation are considered sustainable, greener and sometimes fairer; providing elusive ‘win-win’ scenarios that make the case for adaptation easier. NBS are defined by the European Commission as “solutions to societal challenges […] that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience”. Such solutions imply a technical fix; a simple engineering job delivering benefits for societal wellbeing that trickle down unproblematically, leaving a warm glow for ‘development partners’.
With the right mix of participatory approaches and commitments to addressing the underlying causes of people’s vulnerability, adaptation action could be part of a transformation to a society addressing crucial aspects of injustice.
Whilst the climate-driven political winds that determine adaptation funding blow around, of course people do not sit around waiting for such interventions to rescue them from their plight. Our research in Sri Lanka and Kenya shows marginalised people create adaptive strategies out of the limited agency that is afforded to them amongst the marginalising effects of power relations like land tenure and gender inequality. For instance, the way women in rain-fed agricultural communities in the dry zone of Sri Lanka manage complex forest-like home gardens to provide healthy food, and sell surplus produce to meet their priorities, is an adaptive strategy to multiple kinds of pressures. Similarly, in the face of uncertainties linked to pastoralism as a livelihood in the Horn of Africa different groups are responding with varied adaptive strategies; while many households are diversifying their livestock types and breeds for resilience, migration of youth to nearby towns and cities for new livelihoods are rising sharply even as parents take charge of declining livestock herds. Such adaptations take into account climate change as part of broader forms of marginalisation.
In the cases we studied, NBS did not recognise these forms of marginalisation, nor prioritize local people’s agency and knowledge. This produced unjust outcomes like entrenching inequality, weakening the coping capacities of households and communities, provoking conflicts, or disenfranchising effective local socio-ecological resilience strategies that have evolved over generations.
Why does this happen? We argue the clue is in the name. ‘Nature-based’ approaches are interpretations of adaptation that draw from a western imagination of the relations between “nature” and people. This has concrete effects on the ground.
In Sri Lanka project managers refer to ecology as something separate, that needs protecting from people. Such a frame places themselves as the right people for the job. In the projects we studied, such nature-based frames of adaptation lend legitimacy to external actors, at the expense of local people with often long histories intertwined with such ecosystems. Whilst these are people with deep, place-based expertise, they are rarely deemed legitimate knowers. Assuming that ecosystems are something universally understood rather than local specific, these interventions fall into the narrative of adaptation as a quick fix best done by external experts.
Central to such narratives are notions that poor rural people are inevitably dependent on benevolent, but otherwise independent ecosystems, not recognising the diverse agency and knowledge encapsulated in tried and tested community resilience strategies like sustainable grazing plans. In Northern Kenya, local communities played a very minimal role in conceptualization or even design of their own ‘community-based’ approaches, besides being taken through ‘awareness’ and ‘capacity building’ meetings.
The outcome of such approaches in Northern Kenya is maladaptation; communities and their landscapes have become more vulnerable to climate-related risks as their well-established functional traditional systems continue to degenerate and institutional knowledge lost. For example, government and NGO-led post-drought livestock restocking interventions have destroyed pre-existing community social safety nets. This has led to a breakdown of trust by communities in the effectiveness of external ‘expert’ concepts leaving communities in pursuit of nothing beyond the limited economic benefits in project life cycles.
Littering the road junctions in these places are donor-sanctioned project signage pointing the way to long forgotten interventions. Such appears the outcome of people and nature caught in the political wind of contemporary ‘adaptation’.
Hausner Wendo and Stephen Woroniecki