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Working in the area of Adaptation, Impacts and Vulnerability (AIV), I tend to feel like we are locked into a paradigm from which we are unable to escape – at least not at speed. We are chipping away at small pieces of the system, changing a bolt here, greasing up the chain there, however the bigger wheels just keep turning as they have always done. We are bound by the existing physical, political and economic systems and believes, globally and locally: whether it is through the fact that, for most parts, our current water and sanitation infrastructure is made for consuming not conserving water resources; through the inflexibility of current management structures and the general sluggishness of bureaucratic governmental planning processes; or through the fact that our economies are growth obsessed economies where ‘success’ is measured by GDP.

In adaptation planning we look at this system, try to understand where the weak points are (who, where and what) and what measures we can take to minimize the climate change impacts thereof. The first step here tends to be a vulnerability or risk analysis, approached through either participatory (qualitative) or a more top-down (quantitative) methodologies, or a combination of the two. Climate variables are brought into the mix, historical trends (current vulnerability) and or projections for the future (future vulnerability). These studies tend to identify the poorer, badly serviced areas as the more vulnerable, or biophysical localities such as coastal lowlands, steep slopes or floodplanes – and more often than not the two overlap. Depending on the approach of the study there may be emphasis on why people, infrastructure or locations are vulnerable, which often leads to pointing at factors such as aged or lack of proper infrastructure, lack of local governmental capacity (financial and human), low education levels – as well as the factors above, poverty, lack of services, biophysical localities. From here adaptation actions are identified, which, depending on scale of action and the implementer thereof, will range from some form of capacity building related to better understanding climate change and impacts to improved, community based early warning systems to the revisiting building codes for storm water drainage system. Actions that are feasible within the current economic systems, planning processes, infrastructures and budgets.

These are actions through which we band-aid the parts of the system that are hemorrhaging due to the dysfunctionality of the overall system. In the adaptation planning process we tend to identify and address the surface expression of vulnerability, rather than the underlying drivers of vulnerability – instead of looking at why, why people are living in poorly built structures on steep slopes, why government capacity in this or that area is so limited.

Some of these criticisms already exists within the academic literature. For example Tschakert et al, back in 2013, highlighted how vulnerability assessment practice fails to capture the spatial and temporal drivers of structural inequities, and more recently (2017) Ziervogel et al called for resilience building through the objects of citizens’ rights and justice. Hence attempts at moving beyond the current planning paradigm and conceptualisations and approaches thereof exist, including Pelling et al’s (2014) more radical call for transformational adaptation aimed at shifting fundamentals.

However, while we are murmuring and theorizing in the academic world, the world of practice still largely relies on practical tools and approaches that are grounded in the ‘old’ paradigm. What is more, in the real world we are of course also bound by the existing system. I am still to see a climate change adaptation planning tender, whether it is by an international agency or a government, that does not request some form of risk or vulnerability assessment. While this in itself is not necessarily the problem, these pieces of work generally do not have the time frames nor the budget or power to go beyond the ‘old’ paradigm of understanding the surface expression of vulnerability and to identify band-aiding responses. They definitely do not ask you as a consultant to question the fundamentals of our socio-economic systems. Instead, understandably so I guess, they ask you to identify actions that are feasible within available budgets, and that are socially and politically acceptable.

While I do not want to discourage us all from hacking away at small pieces of the system and band-aiding where we can, I also believe that it is time for us all to start identifying and hacking at the bigger pieces. We need to move adaptation planning practice into a space where we identify, talk about and address the root causes of vulnerability. In that sense climate change adaptation needs to move from being a side activity or a mainstreaming activity to one that pushes the buttons to change the overall system. And, we need to focus on the practical, the how. This will require talking about the elephants in the room, the big barriers to transformative change, the bounds created by the existing physical, political and economic systems and believes. It will involve the uncomfortable undressing of the powers that be, and of the activities, relationships and policies that keep re-enforcing them – and talking about how these can be changed.

Ideally the how also involves some level of self-reflection, seeing that we ourselves through our actions in everyday life move the wheels that keep our current system going. As Professor Lorenzo Fioramonti, the proponent of the Wellbeing Economy, says change happens when the pressure from the top meets pressure from the bottom. Thus radical transformative action to identify and address the root causes of vulnerability in our ‘work space’ needs to be coupled with radical transformative self-reflection and action.



Pelling, M., O’Brien, K. and Matyas, D. 2014. Adaptation and transformation. Climatic Change, 133:113-127

Tschakert, P., Van Oort, B. and St Clair A. L, 2013. Inequality and transformation analyses: a complementary lens for addressing vulnerability to climate change. Climate and Development, 5:4, 340-350

Ziervogel, G., Pelling, M., Cartwright, A., Chu, E., Deshpande, T., Harris, L., Hyams, K., Kaunda, J., Klaus, B., Michael, K., Pasquini, L., Pharoah, R., Rodina, L., Scott, D. and Zweig, P. 2017. Inserting rights and justice into urban resilience: a focus on everyday risk. Environment & Urbanization, 29:1

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