The way society has been organized for decades won’t work for the future. We’ll be living on what will essentially be a different planet, one with different weather and climate patterns, transformed by environmental chain reactions.

Already, communities around the world are coping with record-breaking storms, droughts, floods, and heat waves. Sea levels are causing coastlines and island nations to disappear. Changing precipitation patterns are turning agricultural breadbaskets into deserts, while plummeting insect populations are making it harder to grow food. Around 40% of the global population lives in an area highly vulnerable to climate impacts, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

So what’s to be done? Countries need to engage in transformative climate adaptation, according to Giacomo Fedele, an environmental scientist at Conservation International (CI), who recently spoke to Global Citizen about the IPCC report. 

“Transformative adaptation projects are really large-scale efforts, changing entire systems, addressing the root causes of vulnerability, and involving different stakeholders to really make sure that nobody’s left behind,” Fedele said. 

Transformative adaptation fuses together climate mitigation — scaling down emissions — with climate adaptation — learning to live with the new climate norms — to spur the development of new societies that function in harmony with the natural world. 

The principles of transformative adaptation draw on Indigneous insights that view all the species of the biosphere as interdependent kin that demand to be taken care of accordingly. 

In our interview, Fedele calls for increased funding for climate adaptation, stresses the importance of community participation, and shares various examples of ongoing fieldwork. 

Global Citizen: Why do we need to invest more in climate adaptation?

Giacomo Fedele: It’s very clear that adaptation is receiving too little a proportion of climate financing. I think there is a huge gap around what adaptation needs and what it’s financed for. 

I think that a lot of the private sector needs to increase their financing. I think they are lacking the business case right now, they don’t see the value for their operations yet, but I think because climate change is now impacting everyone’s life, including business operations, that it’s becoming very important. 

It’s for their own interest to build more resilient value chains and the resilience of their operations.

The IPCC report includes many examples of “maladaptation,” or times when climate adaptation efforts failed. How has our understanding of climate adaptation changed over the years?

Maladaptation was featured a lot more in this report than in previous ones. I think scientists have been recognizing that vulnerability is not affecting everyone evenly. Usually it’s poor, marginalized, vulnerable communities with the last means to adapt. At the same time, there are solutions that unfortunately can have negative consequences. These might be actions that might be good in the short term, or for some people in society, but in the long term they might increase the vulnerability, they are not inclusive, they harm the environment, and they worsen the problem.

The report called for making sure we plan adaptation with these particular potential consequences in mind. Really keeping in mind the most vulnerable facing adaptation limits The report also emphasizes the need to have solutions that are just. Addressing the root causes of vulnerability, shifting the imbalance of power dynamics, helping more people out of poverty, and helping governance. 

Can you talk about the importance of nature-based solutions?

Nature-based solutions are restoring and protecting the sustainable management of any ecosystem. I think it’s a top potential for people to adapt. I think they’re key because we really need to help nature to help us to adapt. I think the report increasingly recognizes that. The report is also calling on us to protect 30% to 50% of nature, protected or restored, so it can continue to provide us with adaptation benefits. These solutions are cost-effective, readily available, and they provide multiple benefits, not only adaptation benefits, but they also store carbon, which is very important for mitigation of climate change, and they provide jobs, livelihoods, and opportunities. 

I think it's very important to have these integrated solutions. Climate change is exacerbating so many current challenges that we face. Also with the very limited amount of finance that we have, it's important to invest in solutions that have multiple benefits for multiple sectors of society. 

What are some examples of adaptation that CI supports?

Starting with coastal protection, we can think about communities that are vulnerable to flooding, sea level rise, or cyclones. It’s very important to protect the coast, for example, by restoring mangrove ecosystems that prevent erosion and buffer the impact of cyclones and waves.

In the Philippines, we’re mixing some technological hard infrastructure together with the power of nature, recognizing that sometimes, because of a lack of space and the really extreme conditions, it’s not enough to just restore, so we have to combine it with hard infrastructure, mixing mangroves with structures like sea walls, rocks, and bamboo structures. 

Agriculture is another area. It’s important for farmers to diversify their livelihoods, so we help them plant more trees on their farms that improve soil fertility and water fertility that can increase crop productivity. Trees provide fruits, timber that can be sold, honey — all these products that can be sold aside traditional crops to help farmers really diversify their livelihoods. Trees also protect from strong winds, and protect the watershed. In steep areas, they can stabilize the soil and protect against flash floods. 

We’re also working in Kenya to restore grasslands. In this case, trees are not that appropriate for this kind of ecosystem because they need more water and in a very dry ecosystem that might be a problem. Instead, the ecosystem benefits from traditional animals that keep grazing and prevent bush encroachment. Also by removing alien species, it helps to restore and provide water.

The IPCC report calls for “transformative adaptation.” What do the authors mean by this?

We used to focus on very short-term coping strategies, very incremental strategies — for example, improving sea walls. But with the extreme events of climate change, it might not be enough anymore, so we really need to think about transformative adaptation. These are really large-scale efforts, changing entire systems, addressing the root causes of vulnerability, and involving different stakeholders to really make sure that nobody’s left behind. Transformative adaptation could be completely changing agricultural practices or changing livelihoods to more sustainable ones. I think nature should be seen as an ally. Restoring large areas that are integrated could be transformative. Those solutions are going to be needed much more. 

What are some of the challenges that people in the field of climate adaptation face?

What requires the greatest attention is bringing multiple parties together. It starts with a very participatory process, it starts with bringing in community and helping people understand the dynamics of a project, who is there, why is an area vulnerable, who are the people most affected. You have to bring all those stakeholders to the table. Sometimes that's not easy because there are existing conflicts, we have to make sure we’re being inclusive, and because it requires time and effort to make sure we co-design solutions with local stakeholders. 

We also need to integrate scientific models; there’s very scientific knowledge that needs to be translated to something that can be understood at the local level. The data needs to be at a scale that is operational. We don’t need global projection, we need data that is locally specific, which is sometimes not available, so we need to collect it with interviews and satellites.  

Those people have been living in those places forever, they’ve been living with nature, they have traditional knowledge, they’ve been adapting themselves in ways that might work or might not work, they have their values and opinions and these can compliment the scientific knowledge as we come up with effective adaptation. You have to bring different elements together, it takes time and resources, but it's the only way to move forward — solutions that are inclusive and sustainable in the long term. That cannot be compromised.

How can communities be folded into the adaptation process?

Communities that are involved early on in the project design are often involved in the project implementation. For example, they may be patrolling protected areas or some farmers can help with demonstrations, they can pilot certain techniques and highlight how their productivity has increased through agroforestry, so it can be replicated. They can be involved in monitoring the impact in adaptation projects, so we have participatory modeling with people collecting data, reporting back, and being compensated. There are conservation agreements where there is compensation. Whenever a project ends and funding ends, then that sort of data collection is going to stay if they were involved in the beginning, if they were monitoring the impact, they can continue when organizations are no longer there.

What are some misconceptions about climate adaptation?

We need solutions to climate change that integrate both mitigation and adaptation. We need to decrease the causes of climate change, but we also have to deal with the impact that we’re already facing. It’s a false dichotomy when you try to separate these elements. The more you mitigate, the less you have to adapt. The more you adapt, the more you avoid losses and damages and the more time you have to continue mitigation.

It’s very important for us to understand who is adapting to what, making sure we’re very clear [that] because society and nature are so diverse, we’re so affected by so many different shocks and stresses. We need to be specific and differentiate, create different possibilities and capacities to exposure and vulnerability.

With adaptation, we don’t have one single metric like we do for mitigation. Here, we talk about water access, livelihoods, food security, adaptation of species. 

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