Igniting the Fuse: Raising Awareness and Countering Common Misperceptions on Adaptation

By Shaun Martin, WWF US

At a recent gathering of 200 conservationists, a speaker asked her audience to identify which of the following activities were examples of “adaptation,” – restoring mangroves, removing dams, introducing new crops, building corridors, or promoting community forestry. Almost in unison, the audience answered that all of these were examples of adaptation.

Wrong. The answer, or course, is that “it depends.” It’s not the activity itself that makes something adaptation or not, but rather the process by which it was determined to engage in that activity, and the way in which that activity was implemented, e.g. where mangroves are restored or which crops. And here is where I have found that perhaps lies one of the biggest challenges in introducing the concept of climate change adaptation – many conservationists have a difficult time distinguishing between what is truly adaptation and what is business as usual conservation.  Showing people examples of what adaptation looks like without explaining how adaptation solutions are developed, is a primary cause of this confusion. It was just such an exercise that led one of my colleagues to proudly exclaim that she had been doing adaptation all along but just hadn’t realized it.

Two participants work together at an adaptation training in Madagascar © Shaun Martin.

Two participants work together at an adaptation training in Madagascar © Shaun Martin.

I am not implying that conservationists or anyone else should instinctively understand all the nuances that come with adaptation. It’s new for all of us and it will require significant effort to raise our collective consciousness on what adaptation is and why it’s important. As part of that effort, about a year ago I was asked to design and implement an adaptation training course for WWF staff and our partners around the globe – no easy task, since at that time I wasn’t able to answer the above question correctly either. But I have learned a lot by helping others learn and I’d like to share with you some of my experiences over the past year. In this entry, I would like to talk about some of the misconceptions and attitudes about adaptation we have confronted in our training activities and how we are overcoming these challenges.

To help people understand the difference between business-as-usual conservation and adaptation, we have started showing people simple solutions they are already familiar with and explaining the difference between why and how they are being developed in a climate-relevant context. Building corridors to connect fragmented populations of a species, for example, has been a conservation strategy for many years.  As it turns out, building corridors will also be a very useful tool in helping species adapt to climate change. To most people then, the logic goes, “if they are building corridors and calling it ‘adaptation,’ and I am building corridors too, then I must be doing adaptation as well.”

But what makes building corridors a true adaptation strategy is whether the activity was designed to reduce vulnerability in the context of a dynamic, rather than a static, climate. Connecting two populations of a rare primate may help increase genetic diversity, but confining the species to areas where they are unlikely to survive increased drought and forest fires is no one’s idea of adaptation. We must build corridors to places where the species can survive in the future. And that, in very simple terms, is the difference between adaptation and business as usual conservation.

This then leads our trainees to the next obvious question, “Are you telling us to stop what we’re already doing?” The answer is no (or at least not necessarily). We need to address both the current non-climate related stressors – habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, unsustainable resource use – as well as take measures to reduce vulnerability to future changes in climate. If we stop connecting fragmented populations of primates and instead focus all of our efforts on building corridors to future refugia, we might lose the very species we are trying to conserve before they need to migrate.  The challenge will be to find options that address both current and future threats by pursuing no-regrets solutions. Our trainees find it reassuring that not everything they have spent their entire careers working on is no longer valid.

While we must continue working on non-climate related threats, it is important for people to understand that climate is also impacting and interacting those threats at the same time is it directly affecting conservation targets. We continually tell our trainees that climate change changes everything. We can take nothing for granted except change itself and the uncertainty that goes with it. Some threats will become worse, new threats will appear, and in some cases threats may disappear altogether.

Let’s say that rampant tourism is a growing threat for wildlife at a national park. Combating this threat might consume a large part of a conservation organization’s time. Yet an extreme weather event could take care of the issue for them and at the same time create new problems in its wake. This is exactly what happened in Samburu National Reserve earlier this year. Local conservation groups had long been battling the poorly zoned tourist lodges along important river habitat and the throngs of vehicles that were threatening many animals in the reserve, especially big cats like lions and cheetahs. And in an instant, all of these problems were literally washed away. After a year in which the region’s two rainy seasons had both failed, on March 4, 2010 the Samburu’s worst flood in living memory wiped out most of the lodges in just two hours and destroyed the bridge that connected the reserve with the tourists coming from Nairobi.

Problem solved? Not quite. Conservation groups, in addition to suffering great losses of property, equipment, and research data themselves, now find themselves dealing with a new set of problems they weren’t entirely prepared for. With the tourist lodges went a large source of income for the local people. The new threats facing Samburu are increased poaching, crime, and conflict between tribal groups that had previously got along well with one another.

Another common perception we have found is that many people believe adaptation is additional to what they were already doing and that there simply isn’t enough time or resources to get involved in something new. This misconception is just as prevalent as the confusion between adaptation and business as usual conservation. Though the two are almost contradictory, the outcome is the same. One suggests that we are already doing adaptation so there is no need to do anything further, while the other claims that people are too busy to do adaptation so we can’t do anything else. Neither attitude is very helpful in mobilizing people to action.

Both of these beliefs are rooted in the common view that adaptation comes in the form of projects – that adaptation is an outcome, not a process. “Here is our anti-poaching project, here is our protected areas project, and this is our adaptation project (which is something we were already doing but now calling adaptation).”  Or that adaptation is just yet another conservation activity and not something that is integrated into activities and projects.

There is not yet a strong sense that adaptation must be mainstreamed into everything we do and not merely treated as stand-alone initiatives. Donor organizations are reinforcing this belief with short-term, project-oriented investments and specials funds set aside for adaptation. Yes, there will be extra steps in assessing vulnerability and we must continue addressing many current threats, but in a climate-smart way. Eventually everything we do will be adaptive. In fact, to ensure our own survival, conservation organizations must become adaptive institutions. After a week of these kinds of discussions, one of our trainees in Madagascar correctly summed it up best when she said, “Adaptation is not what we do. It’s how we work.” We now use her quote in all of our trainings.

In my next entry, will provide some lessons learned on designing and implementing an adaptation training course for conservationists.