When technocratic approaches don't really lead to transformation

By Daniel Morchain, Oxfam GB

Even good agricultural solutions alone won't lead to sustainable and equitable development as long as they continue to be about small adjustments and improvements to existing systems and practices, and are framed within existing power structures and governance arrangements. This is because productive systems that may even function under anticipated climatic conditions – assuming these can be created without doing things radically differently – will not lead to increased food security and a higher, sustained income for the poor unless they address the causes of chronic poverty and inequality. To do so, a fundamental shake-up of climate policies and the political structures around it is necessary: transformational adaptation thinking has to be introduced in relation to technological innovations; but, even more so, in re-designing climate governance. The latter entails re-framing the development/adaptation discourse and radically shifting decision making processes, making them inclusive, participatory and more representative of the ‘global South’ and the marginalised within it.

But while there is increasing awareness and recognition that humans can’t continue living as we have, nor can we continue to think about climate change mitigation and adaptation along the same lines (that is, in an incremental fashion), actually doing things differently – what I will refer to as transformation – remains rare and little explored.

Kates et al[1], for instance, show that 95% of all adaptation measures implemented across seven key sectors in the United States replicate what has already been tried. Furthermore, only 3% of adaptation articles “focus on the social roots of vulnerability and the necessity for political economic change to achieve transformative adaptation”[2]. Not only is the nature of existing adaptation measures overwhelmingly incremental, but research on the subject also pays insufficient attention to the need for understanding the climate change problematic as a broader, social problem.

A woman standing near crops being irrigated near Hangang, Northern China. China is in the middle of the worst drought in 50 years. Precipitation totals have fallen significantly across most of China's northern provinces. 60% of China's 669 major cities face water shortages, of these 110 face serious water shortages. One of the main consequences of this is that many areas that previously produced much of China's food are seeing crop yields falling, leading to a loss of long term food security. Computer simulation shows that as Climate change accelerates, it will lead to food shortages across large parts of china. © Global Warming Images / WWF

Whereas incremental changes, which are often technical fixes (drought tolerant seeds, infrastructure works, etc.) have been necessary to reduce risks, keep people safe and stretch ecosystems to their limits to continue producing food, this approach to adaptation is starting to fall short of the challenge ahead of us. Climate change governance is presently framed in a way that promotes business as usual, or development as usual, where the conceptualisation of the ‘problems’ is biased towards inputs from natural sciences, driven by Western institutions and by men. It does so at the expense of other knowledges, like social sciences, or traditional and indigenous knowledges, and by excluding women from spaces of influence.

Research that does focus on transformation in adaptation, on the other hand, often fails to sufficiently explore the social questions that need addressing in order to balance power dynamics and correct structural malfunctions, keeping instead the focus of the transformational elements they explore within the boundaries of agricultural shifts and innovations. Rippke et al[3], for instance, explore the need for anticipatory transformations in African agricultural systems, of which the identified options are either alternative cropping systems or shifting away from crop-based livelihoods. While they do propose creating a “flexible enabling environment for self-directed change among farmers, consumers and value chain participants”, this transformation falls short of re-drawing the development map in relation to power, equitability and redistribution.

Adaptation to climate change, as a force within sustainable development, carries the opportunity – and practitioners have the duty – to address the full spectrum of the drivers of vulnerability; not just those climate or weather related. Yet adaptation efforts so far have taken a narrow, sectorial, and natural science-centric focus and have not challenged the institutions that have shaped development thinking for decades. Hence, there is a strong case for power, equitability and redistribution to be part of the climate agenda. However, in reality “it is Northern countries that have set the global climate change policy agenda since the beginning” and, in so doing, have swayed the focus of the climate agenda away from the needs and priorities of lower-income countries[4] – such as by focusing on mitigation while underfunding adaptation efforts, or by setting climate research agendas in a top-down manner.

Without a transformational shift in the ways institutions frame and implement the climate agenda, the climate camp will have failed to challenge a long-running model of development that has too often been unable to deliver sustainable results. Addressing the relation between climate change and social inequalities is more pressing than ever, as suggests a recent study by Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, indicating that rising temperatures, for example, will result in “a huge redistribution of wealth from the global poor to the wealthy”.[5]

Another article, published by Science[6], found considerable impacts, beyond those well-established, on ecosystems and species and warns of an “increasingly unpredictable future for humans” with negative implications on food security, human health and resource availability. This new reality has been the result of ‘just’ a 1C increase in temperatures, compared to pre-industrial levels so far. With evidence as this one piling up, and as we are bracing for an increase of at least an additional 1-2C within our lifetimes, existing barriers to transformational adaptation (high uncertainty, perceived high costs, and institutional and behavioural barriers[7]) should be easier to overcome – that is, if we can avoid entering an era of post-truth climate politics.

Departing from the present framing of climate change is necessary at all levels – from the individual to the global. Incremental improvements will always be needed, but transformation is what is likely to bring equity and sustainability to climate governance and to our common future under climate change. Transformation will help shake-up power structures and inject new energy and thinking, with people at the centre of it. Transformation, nevertheless, entails risk: there will be a lot of unknowns as we chart into new waters, and certainly not all transformations are good ones – its implications must be analysed carefully – but the need to consider new ways to address climate change and act upon them is undeniable.

Five experts summarise the need to look at and do climate change work very differently: Melissa Leach, Director of the Institute of Development Studies, talks about the need to form novel relationships between state, market and societal actors that challenge and rework political, economic and social structures[8]; Susanne Moser pushes scientists to get more engaged in the normative arena and go beyond where they have gone so far[9];  Sigrid Nagoda from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences suggests that as long as adaptation is conceptualised within existing frameworks it may actually exacerbate inequities and power asymmetries that hinder local adaptation efforts[10]; Karen O’Brien from the University of Oslo wonders if so far we’ve actually got it terribly wrong...? It may be time for a new approach of transformative social change, she claims[11]; and Hakima El Haite, Environment Minister of Morocco, advises us to listen to the voice of the heart, which will make a revolution in the brain – and, she rightfully claims, this will in itself be, but also lead to, a profound cultural transformation[12].

The existing institutional set-up of... the world, really...is having detrimental implications on the potential good that climate change adaptation can do. Part of the solution to this problem, I propose, is to reduce the role that natural sciences, technocratic approaches, Northern scientific institutions and traditional multilateral organisations have had and continue to have in the adaptation discourse, and, in turn, openly and genuinely push from within for a democratisation of the adaptation space to combat this hegemony.


[1] Kates, R.W., Travis, W., and Wilbanks, T. 2012 Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. PNAS, vol. 109, no. 19: 7156-7161.

[2] Bassett, T.J., and Fogelman, C., 2013. De´ ja` vu or something new? The adaptation concept in the climate change literature. Geoforum 48 (0) 42–53.  

[3] Rippke, U., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Jarvis, A., Vermeulen, S.J., Parker, L., Mer, F., Diekkruger, B., Challinor, A.J., and Howden, M. 2016. Timescales of transformational adaptation in Sub-Saharan African agriculture. Nature Climate Change, 6: 605-609.

[4] Blog published on Climate Home (4 January 2017) “Climate science is skewed to rich country interests, say researchers”, discussing the results of a paper published in Nature Climate Change, available at http://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/01/04/climate-science-is-skewed-to-rich-country-interests-say-researchers/

[5] Blog published on MIT Technology Review (20 December 2016) “Hotter days will drive global inequality”, available at https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603158/hotter-days-will-drive-global-inequality/?utm_content=bufferf7a21&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[6] Scheffers, B. et al “The broad footprint of climate change from genes to biomes to people” Science, 11 November 2016,  Vol. 354 Issue 6313

[7] Idem. Kates et al 2012.

[8] Melissa Leach’s presentation narrated by Susanne Moser during a webinar hosted by Future Earth on 22 June 2016 titled “The Social Challenge of 1.5℃”.

[9] Talk by Susanne Moser during a webinar hosted by Future Earth on 22 June 2016 titled “The Social Challenge of 1.5℃”.

[10] S. Nagoda (2015) “New discourses but same old development approaches? Climate change adaptation policies, chronic food insecurity and development interventions in northwestern Nepal”. Global Environmental Change 35 (2015) 570–579.

[11] O’Brien, K. Climate change and social transformations: is it time for a quantum leap? WIREs Clim Change 2016, 7:618-626.

[12] http://themoroccantimes.com/2016/11/21509/hakima-el-haite-fighting-climate-change-means-a-global-transformation