Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

By Susanne Moser, Director, Susanne Moser Research & Consulting

Susanne C. Moser is a geographer (Ph.D. 1997, Clark University) who works nationally and internationally as an independent scholar and consultant from a base in western Massachusetts. Her work with government agencies, non-profits, foundations, and other researchers and consultants focuses on adaptation to climate change, resilience, transformation, science-policy interactions, and effective climate change communication. She is a prolific writer, an inspiring speaker and has served on scientific advisory boards for Future Earth, the International Science Council, the US National Research Council and has contributed to the IPCC international climate and US national climate assessments.

Many local governments have begun to prepare for the impacts of climate change. While online guidance abounds, how to make it real in any one community is a daunting task, constrained by many barriers and other issues competing for attention.

But they, and you, are committed to keeping your cities safe, protected, and able to withstand the ever-more-present (and pressing) consequences of the climate crisis.

Here are four things I’ve learned about the blind spots we all seem to have in this work of resilience-building and climate adaptation, and how to address them.

Adaptation is Not All Local

Sometimes what gets most in the way of making progress on adaptation is old or wrong thinking. One of those outdated, nevertheless often-repeated things you may have heard, or even uttered yourself is: All adaptation is local. I have banged my head against that sea wall for as long as I have worked on adaptation. It is simply not true. Adaptation is  “local and.”

Think about it: where does the energy come from that powers your desk lamp? Where does the food come from that you are eating while you read this? Where do your staff commute in from? Where does the battery come from that makes your Prius hum? Where are the chips made that make your computer run?

In 2011, a series of floods in Thailand killed scores of people, damaged the Thai economy, ruined computer chip manufacturing plants, prevented workers from getting to work to clean up, leaving factories out of commission for months. By the time the damage was tallied, the bill came to nearly $46 billion in economic damages worldwide.

Cites are Connected Regionally, Nationally, and Globally

There are countless examples like this of far-away events rippling through our globalized world and affecting us through:

  • Infrastructure and networks through which we receive water, electricity, transportation, telecommunication
  • Trade networks for food, pharmaceuticals, fuel, and materials
  • Disease vectors hitching a ride in the bodies of world travelers
  • Financial flows
  • Cultural links among people, affecting migration, and the flow of ideas
  • Governance structures and laws that cut across all, from the local to the international

While not a complete list, it’s immediately obvious why these far-flung connections matter to local adaptation.

Cities are Critical Network Nodes

Think about how your city would fare through a sunny day with just one of these lifelines disrupted. Now try responding to an emergency – climatic or otherwise – without electricity, communication, or fuel.

“Ah yes,” you say, “We got that! We have back-up plans. This won’t be more than a short-lived nuisance.”

Famous last words. In adaptation, that may be a dangerous, life-risking blind spot.

How do I know? Well, we went through the exercise of looking at the ways in which jurisdictions in the greater Los Angeles area are linked with one another and others far away. For some possible climate disruptions, lifeline managers were prepared; for others not, revealing both vulnerabilities and opportunities for improving adaptation that did not come up in locally-focused climate risk assessments.

Don’t be Blindsided

Here are some things you can do:

  • Ask who is in charge of your adaptation, climate risk management, or resilience building efforts? If they’re housed within just one department, ask whether they have everyone from every other department at the table? Are their independent efforts paper-clipped together or truly integrated?
  • Make sure your adaptation plan looks at your supply chains and your connections to people, utilities, and suppliers upstream and develop strategies that strengthen and back-up those links.
  • Look at who is dependent on your services downstream. What will help to keep delivering them in case of a disruption? Can you deliver when you’re facing a one, three, or eight day disruption? Can you deliver when environmental conditions are significantly different from those today?

There are more strategies where that came from. You’ll be surprised by what this expanded perspective reveals about your vulnerabilities and strengths. It’ll make your adaptation efforts so much more robust.

Adaptation is Not All About Protecting What We Have

Do you ever wonder what you’re working to achieve with adaptation? Reviews of adaptation plans have revealed that most communities rarely state what their intended objectives are. They look at climate scenarios to protect against, but what level of protection, or what positive outcomes they hope to achieve often remains unsaid.

What People Most Want from Adaptation

In 25+ years of working on adaptation, I have observed three basic things people want from adaptation:

  • The first is for adaptation to make their lives, neighborhoods, environment, or economic situation better than it is right now. Not a real surprise. Things are often not great; the potholes are many and deep, the pilings rotten, the air dirty, the water not safe. So why not use adaptation to improve on matters?
  • The second thing people want from adaptation, usually when they can’t achieve the first, is to keep things at least as good as they are right now. This one speaks volumes to our all-too-human resistance to change, our attachment to place and the livelihoods we depend on.
  • And when people come to see that they can’t keep what they’ve got, they want a feasible path forward, a dignified way out, an alternative they can feel o.k. about. People can agree to relocation if their neighbors come, too, and the vacated land is returned to Mother Nature. And if you haven’t watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, let people in the bayous tell you that.

These are not mutually exclusive categories. It’s more like a progression people have to work through against the backdrop of continuous change and the real limits to adaptation they face. It’s also a sequence, planners work through over time.

But most planning begins without asking communities what they want or need. Planners use words like “resilience” because it sounds positive. But they don’t explain what they mean by it and rarely ask what resilience means to those at risk from climate change.

We ran into these unspoken assumptions in a workshop of experts and practitioners. It was mind-bogglingly difficult to get anywhere until we did the hard work of understanding what everyone meant by resilience. That, it turns out, is just the start, but then people can get clear about and get behind what they are working toward together.

Measuring Adaptation Progress and Success Is Not an “Extra”

Once your shared goals are clear, how would you know you are making progress in the right direction? “How should we measure success?” is a question I get asked time and again. Over nearly 10 years now, I’ve worked with experts, government staff from every level, NGOs, and consultants on just this question. You can read about and use what we learned at www.resiliencemetrics.org.

Three Counterintuitive Lessons

What gets measured, gets done (only sometimes).

This old adage is not always true. Just ask any of your staff what they track and what gathers dust on the shelf! It is true only when

  • Money depends on it
  • A decision requires that information
  • Someone important cares about it (a city councilor, stakeholders, or a program manager) and is making continued support contingent on evidence of what’s working.

Measuring progress and success starts on Day 1 of adaptation (not at the end).

Maybe you thought “M&E” (monitoring and evaluation) comes after all other adaptation work is done. By then, most have run out of steam, can’t find funding for it, and argue they don’t need it anyway. We learned that truly helpful M&E starts when you begin thinking about adaptation. Why? Because developing a vision of success with indicators and metrics fits perfectly into the planning process. In fact, it makes planning better and implementation more likely. We got facilitation tools and job aids right here, and will add others as we learn more.

Meaningful, decision-relevant metrics don’t come from on high.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had that perfect set of adaptation metrics that you could adopt wholesale? Yes, that would save a lot of time. But the reality is, that set of standardized metrics doesn’t exist. And while we may identify one that we can all agree on in the future, for now, it’s a bottom-up problem. You need metrics that:

  • Communicate a vision and progress to your stakeholders
  • Inform your local plans and decisions
  • Help you with fundraising for your projects
  • Show good governance to those you are accountable to
  • Teach you first-hand what is and isn’t working in your work

That’s why our toolkit is meant to help you find the metrics that work for you.

Adaptation Is About People

I was going to end on the money side of adaptation, because I hear it all the time: “measuring progress is all fine and good but adaptation can’t advance until we have (more) money.” I get that. But that issue, too, demands a much more careful look at adaptation finance challenges. If you’re interested check out the shorter research synthesis or full report on typical challenges communities face and how to address them.

Facing Three Kinds of Change

Working with professionals on adaptation over the years, I’ve seen city planners, resource managers, engineers, city councilors, mayors, CEOs, climate scientists, extension staff, and young people doing the hard work every single day of showing up for:

  • The constant change, uncertainty, and surprises that climate change brings
  • The traumatic change from increasingly severe or frequent weather disasters
  • The transformative change we increasingly need to avert further harm

As “messengers of bad news,” they are often not greeted with open ears and arms. They also contend with legacies of racism, poverty, injustice, and pre-existing crises (e.g., the opium crises) as they work to find answers to the rapidly accelerating climate crisis.

Like you, they are committed to finding workable solutions every morning they come in the office. Like you, they go home every night feeling it’s never enough.

Burnout and Climate Grief are Real

In an ongoing survey of adaptation professionals (some early results), we’ve learned that four out of five experience burnout. Yes, 80 percent. Let that sink in for a minute.

In a nutshell: if you want your staff to take care of business and keep your assets, your city safe, you’ve got to take care of them, as they take care of all of us! It’s that simple.

Adaptation professionals are committed to doing what they can help to support their communities, yet face dark scientific realities and frequent uphill battles to advance their work. Their task is not just technically difficult, but psychologically burdensome. We’re now working to identify what skills and capacities adaptation professionals need to keep showing up and keep going without harming themselves. We call it building the “adaptive mind.” Until we get the necessary funding to develop robust answers, trainings, and resources, here are some initial ideas to help.

In the meantime, I urge you to check in with your staff and have a real sit-down conversation about how they, and you, are doing.

After all, this is what we ultimately have to get through this climate crisis: each other.

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