Climate change is now a mainstream development concern. Rightly so in my view – transforming to low carbon development pathways and adapting to change that cannot be prevented are critical to the welfare of billions of people, especially those in poverty.
But I’ve had a few niggling concerns for some time about whether our current efforts to tackle climate change in a development context, an issue which international policy makers will be grappling with today at the Dublin Climate Justice conference, are misdirected or counter-productive. Maybe I’m playing devil’s advocate, and perhaps doing myself out of a career, but these are issues that need debate.
Firstly, we still seem to consistently focus on changing hazards rather than the changing development context that underpins how those hazards affect us (our vulnerability and resilience). In other words, we are always starting from rising temperatures and erratic rainfall rather than the lack of existing rainwater storage or inability of urban citizens to enjoy good drainage or access to medical services.
This is in part because of the privileged position of physical science and modelling in influencing policy-making. It also reflects the demands of the UN to show what element of impacts are specifically related to human-caused climate-change (known in the science as detection and attribution). This is underpinned by the demand to justify international finance that is over and above existing aid flows. The same force is pushing parallel debates around post- 2015 Sustainable Development Goals and UN global climate change agreement.
Secondly, in treating climate change as different, we are too often creating parallel institutions and practices that ignore many of the lessons from the wider development community. These lessons include the long history of reducing the human causes of underlying risk factors (pdf), the role of social protection mechanisms in bolstering resilience to climate shocks, and efforts to ensure that our responses are culturally and developmentally appropriate rather than focused only on maximum greenhouse gas emissions reductions (exemplified in fuel efficient cook-stoves).
Thirdly, our standard response to tackling climate change is as a managerial response, breaking it down into a technical issue. Get the right information and technical assistance to the right people and, lo and behold, policies and actions will adjust to become low-carbon and climate resilient. This ignores both the fact that behaviour is often not rational, not least when it comes to managing risks, and that policy change is contested, mediated by political economy and politics. It also turns attention away from more radical solutions such as addressing over-consumption. We need to better understand the political factors that mediate trade-offs between the achievement of climate change and development objectives, and engage with radical and behavioural approaches.
This is not to say that no-one is working on aspects of human vulnerability (witness the growing community based adaptation community), or trying to mainstream climate change into development, or asking questions about how to adapt to more catastrophic levels of climate change given the failure of international efforts to date, or challenging the dominance of a ‘post-politics’ managerial approach to development. It’s just that these seem to be sideshows next to the main act which continues to treat climate change as something isolated and separable from wider development processes. Should we just let development take care of climate change?
To explore these issues further, the IDS Climate Change Team is hosting a Sussex Development Debate to discuss how to tackle these issues in light of new post 2015 development and climate change frameworks. The debate is open to all and will also be available to watch live on the IDS website.