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Learning to govern: the challenges and opportunities of climate change policy

The author discusses some of the challenges and opportunities that we face in utilizing research and developing climate-smart policies. Photo: N. Palmer (CIAT)
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By Chase Sova

As we’ve seen in the stories published on this blog from the Planet under Pressure conference [see Promoting Integration and dialogue within the context of global change and Bold optimism for science to address global sustainability challenges] a reoccurring theme at the conference has been the integration of climate science outputs and knowledge in to decision-making processes. This emphasis on translating research in meaningful ways that inform policy decisions is evidenced by the release of a series of Rio+20 oriented policy briefs covering a range of effected sectors, from energy to agriculture. 

Building on the inertia that this subject has built, I thought this a nice moment to address some of the challenges and opportunities that we face in putting research into use and developing climate-smart policies.  This post is, in a way, a natural continuation of my last post “The ups and downs of climate adaptation in agriculture” which addresses issues of scale in adaptation interventions and institutions. 

How we make decisions

Our ability to integrate climate research in to policy development depends in large part on improving our understanding of how decisions are made.  As we know, climate change decisions are made on many actor levels, from the mandates of international bodies to the autonomous choices that are taken at the farm level.  At each of these levels, the institutions that define the context in which we operate, the assets available to us, our perceptions of risk, and our capacity for behavioral change all shape the final decision that we make.  For any individual or group, each of the above factors are inherently different and complicated by more profound social constructs like religion, language and culture --the elements that collectively form our core system of  beliefs. 

The resulting diversity defines the way that we react to certain types of information and knowledge.  Dividing climate change research outputs in to those related to (1) the causes of climate change,  (2) the extent of impacts, or the (3) consequences of impacts, for example, reveals that each category influences decision-making differently for different actors.  For example, if we feel the cause of climate change to be the result of historical GHG emissions caused by industrialized nations, than we, as developing nations, would not feel compelled to enact mitigation policies that hold ourselves responsible for our own emissions.  On the contrary, if we see the cause of climate change to be the result of our global collective actions - including agricultural activities - then this will be reflected in policy decisions that result in across-the-board action.  This straight forward example illustrates a phenomenon that applies to research related to climate change extent and consequences as well.  The different ways that we perceive knowledge ultimately determines the scale at which we enact policy, who is responsible for making decisions, how we measure policy success and so on. So it becomes clear that what information we present to who matters. 

And it is the tip of the iceberg. Think of how political ideologies, power dynamics, social trends, lobbies etc influence decision making…

What should climate change policy look like?

So we’ve determined that climate research can be interpreted in many ways according to the perspective that we’re seeing it from and the context in which we’re operating.  Let’s turn now to what policy may look like.

The discourse in climate policy today remains dominated by choices between whether to mitigate the effects of climate change or to adapt to the impacts that we’re already committed to.  CCAFS has taken a particularly strong stance in reducing this sometimes artificial (and unhelpful) divide by promoting universally beneficial climate-smart practices in agriculture. This perspective is supported in the Rio+ policy brief “Food security for a planet under pressure” where the authors promote a more holistic food systems approach to ensuring food security in a changing world. So while the adaptation-mitigation divide is becoming less sharp, two other dichotomies are relevant here: policies focusing on (1) planned versus autonomous and (2) technological versus behavioral interventions.

Whether the emphasis should be placed on building the capacities of governments to plan adaptation/mitigation through relevant macro-level policies and projects or on improving the capacities of much broader network of actors (private sector, civil society and individuals) to adapt/mitigate autonomously to climate change is a much debated topic.  The solution likely falls in the middle of this spectrum. Governments will need to leverage their access to financial and human resources to create an environment conducive to autonomous actions by the many levels of actors in the system. This includes support in both research and development to provide technological and infrastructure solutions, and capacity programs designed to prepare stakeholders to willingly adopt or utilize them. A tip is to see the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change’s newly released video ‘How to feed the world in 2050: actions in a changing climate’, which highlights some policy topics in that will increase the food security “safe space”. 

To achieve this, governments will need to go to the drawing board to develop new policies, while also avoiding the temptation to reinvent the wheel when climate policy integration (CIP) – sometimes referred to as “climate-proofing” - will suffice.   Whatever the outcome, the resulting governance structures must be multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral in nature, and allow for institutions that reach the full scale of actors, particularly those most vulnerable.

There is a need for a pardigm shift

I concluded my last post by drawing parallels between natural resource management (NRM) and climate change. For the sake of variety I’ll do the same here, this time in the context of adaptive management and social learning.

One key to developing successful climate change policies will be understanding that we won’t always get it right.  Some policies will inevitably fail in achieving their objectives, even those that we consider well planned and implemented.  The reason is that the groups that give policies their legitimacy – mainly the individuals responsible for drafting, administering and those effected by the policies - are diverse and by no means static in their decision making. This implies that policy evaluation and monitoring will be as important as the policies themselves.

While the core beliefs that shape broad policy goals are more difficult to change (part of the reason progress in replacing the status-quo growth model has been so tough!) the instruments that we use (i.e. regulation, subsidies, underwriting etc) can be as flexible and evolving as the stakeholders they aim to serve. Like NRM has been so successful in pioneering, we need to promote a culture of social learning and iterative decision making of the same variety that we apply in participatory action research. So while the debate between “incremental progress” and vast “structural change” rages on, in the realm of climate change policy both apply. We’ll only make incremental progress in arriving at robust policy solutions to climate change after a paradigm shift makes that a real possibility. 


Chase Sova is a visiting researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Follow the coverage of the Planet Under Pressure conference all week on our blog as well as twitter @cgiarclimate and Facebook. You can also see the full list of CGIAR events and stories from the conference.