Back in 2010, farmers in northern Malawi were advised to stop growing local maize varieties and switch to faster-maturing hybrids, to protect them from a shortening rainy season. Now, less than three years later, the government is urging them to start planting indigenous varieties again, alongside the newer ones, because researchers have found the local maize more resilient to weather extremes.
Such stories hint at the difficulty of adapting to changing conditions that can be very hard to predict. They expose the uncertainties global warming is bringing to agriculture, and ultimately vulnerable people's lives. And they show that no one has the ‘right’ answer to how to adapt to shifting weather and climate patterns - at least not yet.
"We will not know what works well as adaptation to climate change for another decade or so," Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), said Tuesday in an online debate on how the poorest can act to adapt, hosted by IIED and AlertNet Climate.
For now, he said, the best clues may come from efforts to protect people from disasters, in places from Bangladesh to Cuba. But “these remain adaptations to climate variability rather than adaptations to climate change," he stressed.
Despite the challenges in understanding exactly how climate change will affect the world's poorest and worst-hit people, the experimentation needed to find solutions is already happening, from the international level down to the hyper-local.
There are many positive examples, experts on the panel said. For example, the Adaptation Learning Programme in northern Kenya brings meteorological department officers together with district officials and community members, including chiefs, religious leaders and women, to plan for different rainfall scenarios based on seasonal forecasts. The jointly devised responses are then publicised.
And the Red Cross has led an initiative in which communities, NGOs and decision makers cooperated to establish "minimum standards" for reducing the risks of climate-related disasters. These guarantee that communities can set up and operate early warning, access climate and weather information, assess changing risks, and communicate their needs to government representatives and potential funders.
HUMILITY IN SHORT SUPPLY?
One aim of practical systems like this is to enable climate scientists and the people most affected by climate change to share their knowledge more effectively.
"To bridge this gap, scientists need to be much more humble, and accept that they need a much better understanding of the real problems faced by communities, rather than starting with the long-term climate scenarios," said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.
And this must be done in a way that can be applied widely, he said. "Just putting the few scientists that 'get it' into one community for months to get a full common understanding of the problems is not going to help the millions of people affected," he noted.
A clear message from the discussion was that there’s all too often a disconnect between the many different levels of action on climate change – from the World Bank down to the rural village.
The groups who face the biggest climate-related challenges in their daily lives either aren’t consulted at all, or their opinions and needs aren't properly taken into account.
And while the number of projects trying to put this right is growing, changing the whole aid-driven mindset of the international climate change community is a daunting task.
"Adaptation in Africa cannot become another job creation project for the middle-class of the global North and South," said Yvette Abrahams, a researcher with Gender CC-Women for Climate Justice, South Africa. "If we have not worked the fields with the people, we really are not experts."
Abrahams cited an example in which the introduction of hybrid maize varieties meant women farmers could no longer grow pumpkins underneath the maize stalks nor climbing beans because the maize’s larger leaves blocked out too much of the sun.
"We cannot develop LAPAs (local adaptation plans for action) in nice air-conditioned offices far away from the women who make a living off the land and think that we are going to come with ready-packaged solutions," she wrote. "We shall not adapt by using the old 'expert teaching ignorant peasants' model'."
The discussion focused on what governance models can be used to avoid this conventional top-down approach.
"Good governance, creating accountability, empowering voices and rights, and shaping political systems locally, nationally and internationally are key - without this we will fail even with the best data and information systems," said Kit Vaughan, director of the CARE Poverty Environment and Climate Change Network (PECCN).
Simon Anderson, head of IIED's climate change group, argued that some countries already have the constitutional and legislative means in place for citizens to act.
For example, Kenya's new constitution includes the right for people to live in a safe environment, as well as resources for bottom-up governance that could include adaptation planning, he noted. And Scotland's climate change act makes it a duty for ministers to achieve and report on mitigation and adaptation targets. "With such pillars of governance in place, progress can and should be achieved," Anderson said.
Establishing communication flows that create awareness about problems and bring about the right kind of action where it's most needed was another hot topic.
This could include “passing important information to the farmers, like some newer varieties of crops tolerant to saline water or drought. Or (saying) tomorrow there will be signal number three, meaning fishermen shouldn't go fishing in the sea, and they are asked to remain near the coast. Those kinds of messages and information are part of building resilience and coping capacities of people, eco-systems and communities. We need a lot of communication tools," said Quamrul Chowdhury, a climate negotiator for Bangladesh and the world’s least developed countries.
And there were some innovative ideas about how to both spread and collect information on climate change adaptation among the poorest people – including those who are illiterate – as well as giving them tools to make key decisions. Suggestions ranged from using games - a growing area of climate change practice - to incorporating messages in drama and involving students in schools and universities.
Participants also said improving media coverage of climate adaptation is key to raising public awareness.
"I hear so much talk about adaptation, but so little about how to communicate adaptation," wrote IIED press officer, Mike Shanahan, who has researched the topic. "I think that better communication is itself a form of adaptation to climate change and probably among the cheapest and fastest ways to get results."
With coverage flagging in many countries, it was suggested that groups working on climate change could help journalists find local “heroes” who could tell positive stories about their work, an idea welcomed by some reporters in the discussion.
SPENDING IT WELL
Despite overwhelming agreement on the need to strengthen media reporting on climate change, Shanahan and van Aalst said interest in funding climate communication work is fading among some donors.
That may be because budgets are tight these days, as aid spending has been squeezed by financial problems in Europe and the United States.
But irrespective of what should be counted as part of the climate funding rich nations have promised vulnerable ones in the U.N. climate talks, the experts were unanimous that much more money is required to help the world's poorest adapt.
"Massive ramp up of support for adaptation is urgent," said Chowdhury, adding that climate finance is not charity but an obligation under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Huq agreed that "the figures for adaptation funding need to be revised upwards considerably".
Where the extra dollars will come from is a puzzle the world has yet to figure out. Cash-strapped governments are hoping business will step in to take some of the financial strain. But experts in the debate said the limited profit opportunities offered by adaptation projects are putting companies off.
"The climate situation requires all hands on deck. There is a role for the private sector definitely, but let's be clear that the poorest and most vulnerable are not what our current private sector seeks to support," said CARE's Vaughan.
Still, even if poorer nations aren't yet getting anything like the amount of financial support they need to adapt, the onus is on them to spend what they do have efficiently and without corruption, while channelling a fair share to the most vulnerable, the panel agreed.
"Ensuring that funding for adaptation is well used with minimal administrative costs is indeed the major current challenge for those vulnerable developing countries doing adaptation and wanting to attract more funding," said Huq.