With the latest round of UN climate talks  underway in Durban this week, many are rightly concerned about the agreements that will be reached (if any), and whether it will be a case of too little, too late (quite probably).

The challenges of achieving global public policy consensus aside, new research is highlighting a range of other pressing concerns that need urgent attention.

Last week saw the launch of the summary of the IPCC special report on ‘Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation’ (SREX). This was the result of a two-and-a-half year long global collaboration between 220 scientists (full disclosure: I was one of the 220 & wrote sections of chapter 6 on managing climate risks at a national level).

One of the key messages of the IPCC report is that existing risk management and adaptation measures need to be improved dramatically. Many countries were found to be poorly adapted to current extremes and risks – let alone those projected for the future.

As recent Stockholm Resilience Centre research shows, this is more than just a technical issue. In fact, the study suggests the time is ripe for a serious rethink of the way resilience and adaptation measures are being designed and implemented.

Resilience is popular. Over the last year, I have being doing an increasing amount work on this ‘big new idea’ in international affairs – for DFID, ODI and others.

While it’s clear that there is a lot of value in this area for development and humanitarian efforts, there are some conceptual and operational challenges that need to be addressed. One widespread issue that I’ve noticed is that while aid agencies are embracing resilience, they are also tending to put the underlying theoretical framework of complex systems to one side as ‘too complicated’.

The study from experts at the Stockholm Resilience Centre shows that such conceptual simplifications of resilience can have considerable downsides – in the extreme, they can lead to interventions that actually diminish resilience.

There are now hundreds (if not thousands) of major public sector initiatives that have been developed in response to climate change, in high, middle and low income countries alike. Adaptation strategies include adjusting economic activities, changing land and energy use practices, and reforms to the design and implementation of infrastructure.

The study authors evaluated nine adaptation policy responses to assess how much they were affecting the resilience of various social-ecological systems. The findings were sobering: ‘Out of the nine initiatives analysed, only three had elements that could enhance resilience as much as reducing it. The other six had effects that predominantly reduced the resilience of a system.’

The reason? Many of the policy approaches to climate risks focused too much on short-term benefits and sought simple technological fixes to problems that were more complex. Such responses, designed with a focus on one single risk factor, can inadvertently undermine the capacity to address other stresses. As the authors put it:

There is growing evidence that current policy approaches… fail to significantly address multiple and interacting factors which affect system resilience and the needs of vulnerable populations.

Such over-simplistic efforts ‘create bizarre distortions in public policy’ precisely because climate vulnerabilities are created through multiple stresses, and not single factors. The problems went beyond how risks were defined – issues of governance, feedback and learning were also identified as critical. As the authors put it:

[In those] situations in which system stresses were defined as narrow, technical problems with short-term horizons… governance structures were top-down, did little to link actors at different scales, masked system feedbacks, and did not provide incentive or structure to promote learning…. In contrast, in the two examples where the issue was framed in a broader manner, policy implementation tended to enhance characteristics that supported the ability to manage resilience, including flexibility and learning.

Is there any explanation for this widespread focus on single risk factors? There are numerous reasons cited in the study. These include:

  • a desire for readily observable metrics
  • existing political structures and incentives
  • entrenched institutional cultures, and
  • long histories of dealing with social and ecological problems in narrow and limited ways

All these factors have been identified as systemic problems in international aid agencies, both on this blog and elsewhere. Indeed, some of the most troubling manifestations of the push for simplification were to be found in developing country case studies. For example, fisheries management in Uganda and drought responses in Kenya both highlighted the importance of local sources of resilience based knowledge of local ecosystems and social networks. But in both cases, the local sources of potential resilience were diminished by actors and forces operating at wider level.

Given this important new evidence, we are left with what seems like an obvious choice. To paraphrase the study authors, do we want  efficient and effective adaptation measures, narrowly and technologically defined? Or do we want strategies that are more open-ended and innovative and seek to build resilience by understanding and strengthening local capacities?

The answer may seem obvious, but as global climate policy debates have repeatedly highlighted, in this realm the obvious choices are often the hardest agree upon. Politics and special interests clearly play a major role, and can all too often inhibit the space for  evidence-based considerations.

One would hope that the adaptation issue is less entrenched than the battle that continues to be being waged around mitigation. At the very least, policy makers and practitioners alike need to become more aware of, and work with the key finding of the study – namely that:

dealing with specific risks without full accounting of the nature of system resilience leads to responses that can potentially undermine  long–term resilience…”

In closing, and by way of some rather grim light relief, here is an award-winning climate change cartoon. It’s from 2008. Plus ca change.

(And a link to another cartoon in a piece I posted two years ago before the Copenhagen talks.)

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. This is a very timely post for me to be reading. I’m working with some people researching a book chapter about how to make natural resources extension more relevant in light of GCC. Can you think of any must-have publications that we can refer to?..the more concrete and practical the better. I have quite a bit of stuff on networks and resilience, but I’m seeing that a lot of it is about how to get people (meaning extension agents) more comfortable with adaptation and responsiveness, and listening to farmers, rather than imposition of technologies. I think you can get to my email when I post, so if any literature comes to mind, I’d surely appreciate a point in the right direction.

    Thanks again for the post.

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Climate change, Innovation, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Resilience, Strategy