Protecting livelihoods in climate change adaptation
Resilience has become a buzzword in popular research and policy for climate change adaptation. The wide range of shocks from climate change are felt in areas like food security, social protection, conflict, and disaster relief. Resilience thinking is the conventional response that seeks to bolster infrastructure and social systems to ensure a community can absorb these shocks. However, the concept is weakened by its inadequate ability to translate social theory to existing socio-economic disparities and ecological frameworks, leaving some vulnerable communities behind.
A recent paper in Nature Climate Change points out that the concept of resilience should be viewed through the lens of livelihood resilience and should be addressed in such a way that it includes those marginalized communities. The authors, led by Thomas Tanner of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, show that resilience as a concept is contingent on certain social values regarding what we deem important and how we ought to allocate resources and advocate realigning those values to embrace a more holistic response to build livelihood resilience. Metamorphic in nature, the authors’ suggested approach shows that that even the smallest improvements in livelihoods can positively transform societies, creating a resilient future for generations to come.
The authors write that current concepts of resilience are built upon ecosystem models, focusing too much on the resilience of natural systems rather than the resilience of the people who live in those systems. However, climate change is not exclusively an environmental problem, but rather part of a larger human dynamic that concerns social injustice, imbalance of contribution, decision-making, authority, and the politics that connect them. Therefore, it cannot be solved solely by science. The authors argue that livelihood resilience strategies — over conventional ecosystem-centric methods — foster the liberation of human rights and social transformation. They push for systems of empowerment and self determination as ways to not only adapt to climate change, but to cope with its affects; rather than reassembling the same social constructs that contributed to climate change in the first place.
To strengthen conventional resilience thinking as a solution to these barriers, the authors propose three areas of focus. First, there is a need to recognize that there is no general consensus on desired outcomes. Resilience is dependent upon social values. Some people are perpetually marginalized, we therefore need to ask: resilience for whom, and what are their value systems? Second, to enable direct engagement with power relations and those with resource access, more focus needs to be placed on exactly whose needs are being served. A better understanding of the population being served is needed to successfully translate their values and ideologies into the political economy of climate change resilience; issues that may otherwise fall through the cracks in resilience approaches. Third, due to the unjust distribution of rights, access to resources, and representation, conventional focus of resilience systems could potentially disregard habitants of “natural” ecosystems. To strengthen resilience thinking, the lack of social representation and abundance of poor infrastructure within impoverished communities needs to be considered.
In order to plan for a more climate resilient future, if current conceptions of resilience planning are not attentive to issues of human empowerment, political power relationships, ideologies, cultural values, etc., the authors advocate for a livelihood perspective that can help address both challenges of human resilience and natural resilience to climate change-related shocks. Livelihood resilience is defined as the capacity of all people across generations to sustain and improve their well being despite environmental, economic, social, and political disturbances. This concept promotes strategies that empower marginalized populations to have more involvement in the resiliency decision-making process and enhance their status in life. This approach moves past the predominately scientific and often inaccessible technical language present in other conceptions of resilience and connects with the needs of the community in question, placing the humans at the center of the discussion.
A livelihood approach also brings in human rights to the conversation. By collaborating with the international development community on issues like securing land use rights and political agency, there are additional benefits to the impacted area when a natural disaster occurs. In addition, the livelihood approach focuses on proactive planning, calling for a focus less on the recovery from shocks, but more on how coping and adaptation strategies are related to social transformation. How might people migrate from an area in the event of a climate-related event? How are the health of the ecological system and the social system linked?
Given those points, the authors argue for a more humane shift in mainstream systems thinking. They call for more research into linked social–ecological systems as well as an increase in development of livelihood resilience techniques. As a whole, they push for conventional resilience systems and resource management regimes to incorporate livelihoods as means to liberate marginalized communities. Once galvanized, self-determined communities can develop the necessary relations to obtain resources access, shift power structures, and become part of the larger political decision-making discussions.
Enabling vulnerable populations to self-direct resilience adaptation to the potential threats of climate change preserves human dignity, is socially just, and paves the way for social transformation in the field. In a world with increasing climate risks that are impacting vulnerable populations, connecting those populations and their livelihoods to the ecological systems upon which they depend during the resilience planning process will be critical to make sure no one is left behind in the climate debate.