Get the basics right, or add adaptation?

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Photo: S. Kilungu (CCAFS)
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Sep 1, 2014


Sonja Vermeulen (CCAFS)

When it comes to climate funds, drawing a line between development and adaptation may cause more harm than good.

Media and civil society groups keep a keen eye [1] on the sources of public climate funds. Their concern is that money earmarked for adaptation and mitigation takes away from development funds, thereby decreasing poor people’s access to better health or education. Global responses to climate change, the argument goes, are a matter of justice and reparation, not charity. Donor governments consequently shoulder the burden of proof that climate activities are additional, not mainstream development [2]. Yet many doers and thinkers see development – whether rising incomes or greater empowerment – as the only real route to adaptation. So where does development end and adaptation begin?

Some helpful insights come in Hallie Eakin, Maria Lemos and Don Nelson’s article Differentiating capacities as a means to sustainable climate change adaptation [3]. Drawing from examples in agriculture, the authors distinguish between “generic” and “specific” adaptive capacity. Generic capacities include income and assets, access to education and health services, political voice, security and mobility. Specific adaptive capacity is defined as the “tools and skills needed to anticipate and effectively respond to specific (climatic) threats” such as seawater inundation, rainfall variability or higher temperatures.

The authors ask whether generic or specific adaptive capacity is more important, across three case studies from Brazil, Mexico and USA. In northeastern Brazil, the limited public investments in agricultural adaptation over the years have focused on specific capacity. Examples are weather forecasts, drought-tolerant crop varieties and improved water storage. But uptake has always been low, largely because farmers are poor and have little political voice. Today, farmers’ access to social support, the Family Allowance Program, is the only measure statistically correlated with increased food security. Families were nonetheless highly vulnerable during the major 2012 drought.

An easy conclusion is that generic capacities provide the foundation for adaptation: we should invest in broad-based development ahead of specific climate change interventions.  Arguably the best way to raise poor farmers’ adaptive capacity is to help them raise their incomes and assets. But the Mexico case shows this isn’t quite right. Food security programs that have promoted hybrid maize for sale into formal markets have inadvertently increased livelihood risk for smallholders who have neither capital nor insurance. For these farmers, using local maize varieties is a more reliable way to handle climate variability. Similarly, the USA case shows how over-reliance on generic capacity can undermine investment in the specifics – the complacent “safe development paradox”. As we know from Hurricane Katrina, high levels of national development do not guarantee strengths in climate risk management.

In sum, concerted investment in specific services and technologies for adaptation will not alone secure more resilient livelihoods. But nor will investment in development that omits tools and skills to face the additional threats of climate change. If we want generic and specific capacities to work together, not against each other, then perhaps the emergent lesson is to stop pursuing climate programs in isolation from development policies. Poor people will benefit, even if calculating “additionality” becomes that little bit more difficult. 


[1] EurActiv 2013. EU admits double-counting climate finance and development aid.

[2] Knoke, I. 2012. Climate change financing: the concept of additionality. European Parliament Directorate General for External Policies.

[3] Eakin, H.C., Lemos, M.C. and Nelson, D.R. 2014. Differentiating capacities as a means to sustainable climate change adaptation. Global Environmental Change 27: 1–8. [limited access]