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Is the New IPCC Report a Game Changer for Adaptation? SEI’s Response to AR6 WGII

Read SEI's response to the IPCC AR6 WGII report exploring what's new, what's missing and whether it is a game changer for adaptation.
Multiple Authors
a flooded out roadway with animals and people on it
How we provide adaptation support to regions most susceptible and vulnerable to climate impacts remains critical and urgent. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Image


“An atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. This is how António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, described the Working Group II contribution of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) released this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. Here SEI researchers from across the globe interpret the report’s headlines on adaptation.

This latest report synthesizes the global state of knowledge on the impacts of climate change, adaptation to these impacts, and vulnerability. Since its release this week, SEI researchers from across our centres worldwide have been poring over the report’s 3,675 pages to answer one key question: Is the report a game changer for adaptation?

Here, 10 of these researchers bring their expertise to bear, exploring: what’s new in the report? What’s missing? What should policymakers, practitioners and researchers take note of? Can the report serve as a springboard to support adaptation efforts – especially in countries most affected and at risk from the climate crisis?

Their contributions span multiple issues and areas of expertise, including adaptation knowledge, planning and finance. Their insights underscore the need for new governance mechanisms that account for and address the global nature of the adaptation challenge. Though their reactions and insights vary, issues concerning justice weave like a red thread through them all – reflecting the inequities that must be redressed, and a profound recognition that creating a more resilient world depends on building a more equal world. That is both the challenge and the opportunity that lies before us.

This weADAPT article is a repost of an SEI perspective piece. Read the full SEI perspective piece for further information.

Transboundary climate risks – Richard Klein

Complex, compound, cascading, cross-border climate risks have arrived in the IPCC. These were all but overlooked in previous IPCC reports, so it is notable and encouraging that the new IPCC report not only recognizes transboundary risksand the need for transboundary collaboration but mentions them no less than four times in the summary for policymakers. And in the report proper, the cascading nature of climate risk receives considerable column width in several chapters, including a cross-chapter box on “Inter-regional Flows of Risks and Responses to Risk”. This box, co-authored by SEI’s Magnus Benzie, shows that not only neighbouring countries face transboundary risks, but that these risks can be, and are, transmitted over large distances – cascading across sectors and borders through, for example, trade and finance networks.

Climate risks are therefore more complex than initially assumed, and more difficult to manage. This is bad news in light of the IPCC’s finding that adaptation progress is uneven and not fast enough. The report identifies an “adaptation gap” between what’s being done and what’s needed, which – at the current rate of planning and implementation – will continue to grow. The IPCC report begins to answer the first of three key questions posed at the start of Adaptation Without Borders: What are transboundary climate risks and how can we assess exposure to these risks? However, much additional research is required to answer the second and third questions: What options are available to manage transboundary climate risks, and whose responsibility is it to initiate and implement adaptation action to reduce these risks?

Global justice – Frida Lager

For the first time, AR6 highlights justice as a core quality of climate adaptation alongside effectiveness and feasibility. The prominence it receives – justice and inequality are mentioned no less than 16 times in the summary for policymakers – reflects the increasing acknowledgement of its centrality to matters at the heart of adaptation. Yet just as climate risk can exacerbate already existing inequalities, the very action of adaptation can create winners and losers across scales: what strengthens the resilience of some might also enhance the vulnerability of others. Often overlooked, justice in adaptation is not only a local issue but should be of global concern.

Let’s take a look at food. AR6 confirms that the world is already suffering from increased food insecurity and water scarcity due to climatic change across continents. And this is expected to get worse. Mid-sized producers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are both exposed and highly vulnerable to climate change and play a key role in global food security. The interconnectedness of the global food system means the failure of such producers to adapt will affect us all. Yet there is also an “obvious global benefit from successful, equitable and just adaptation”.

Food is just one example. As the world emerges from a global pandemic only to meet war in Europe, most of us are more aware than ever of the fragility of the highly connected global landscape. And systemic risk calls for systemic solutions. It is time for adaptation policy to take on a less territorial approach. We must work together to actively safeguard people and systems most at risk, for the sake of us all.

Food is an example of how interconnected the world is. Justice in adaptation needs to be addressed at a global scale with a systematic approach. Photo: <a href=
Mykola Sosukin / EyeEm / Getty Images”>

Recognition justice – Jonathan Ensor

It is hugely encouraging to see considerations of justice mainstreamed through the AR6 report, reflecting its growing prominence as a framework to understand the successes and failures of adaptation. However, for much of the report, justice is considered in only two dimensions: distributive (who benefits from adaptation) and procedural (who participates in adaptation decisions). Coverage of a third dimension – recognition justice (“basic respect and robust engagement with and fair consideration of diverse cultures and perspectives”) – is patchy.

Recognition justice has disproportionate significance: it underpins procedural and distributive justice, attending to deep-rooted norms that mean some groups are “routinely dominated, maligned or rendered invisible in their public or social worlds”. Recognition injustices, then, are particularly insidious forms of exclusion that leave some groups marginalized from defining when adaptation is necessary and what forms of adaptation are desirable. Yet despite this, treatment in the report is inconsistent: for example, extensive coverage of social justice in climate resilient development pathways fails to explore recognition justice, while elsewhere, the definition of recognition justice loses reference to “basic respect” and “diverse cultures and perspectives”, preferring instead a more limited “recognising and including those who are or may be most affected by an action”. This shift in tone matters. As the report itself suggests, recognition justice brings an important focus not only on inclusion but also on agency.

In the coming years, more work is required by the academic community to investigate and set out the fundamental importance of recognition justice. If identified and acknowledged, recognition injustices can be addressed through “processes of participation that enable marginalized people to devise and decide on their own interpretation of a productive and valuable life”, as SEI authors have recently suggested.

Adaptation planning – Albert Salamanca

Like previous IPCC reports, AR6 provides a clear justification for why we need to act urgently on the climate crisis. Yet a huge gap continues to exist in transforming insights to actions, especially in developing countries where climate risks are higher and more existential. Even where adaptation insights do translate into actions, they are often uncoordinated or unplanned (with at-risk communities largely forced to adapt on their own). They largely fail to provide a coherent and inspiring framework through which national development is pursued. Development planning is still framed and implemented as if resources are unlimited, with no concerns for the needs of future generations.

The case for global action has been made. What it implies is an answer to the question: Do current policy instruments such as national adaptation plans (NAPs) and adaptation strategies match the challenge posed by this “atlas of human suffering”? To date, only 34 countries have submitted plans to the NAP registry. These plans need to be fit for purpose, properly funded, meaningfully executed, and ultimately inclusive – representing the needs of everyone and their desires for a future less threatened by risks from the impacts of climate change. For a start, countries that have contributed most to historical emissions need to scale up their support to contribute their fair share in alleviating suffering.

Adaptation finance – Corrado Topi

The role of finance, and particularly the role of private finance and publicly leveraged finance, is prominent in the AR6 summary for policymakers. This is good news.

Some of the major problems limiting climate action come from the many barriers to the timely flows of finance to those who needs it the most. This is a problem not just for developing countries, but also for the most vulnerable strata of society in high-income countries. The problem is fuelled and reinforced by deep inequalities – in income but also in skills and capacity to access finance. Adaptation action is nuanced, and it is difficult to frame within ordinary financial instruments and mechanisms. As a result, it garners much lower levels of investment than classic, technology-driven mitigation action. Blanket approaches – deploying the same financial mechanisms and instruments across very different cultural and socioeconomic contexts – are not the answer. They do not allow for the rich and diverse design of stakeholder-led solutions that are necessary to deal with adaptation challenges. In recognizing these challenges, AR6 takes an essential step forward.

In the aftermath of the report, the focus should be on ensuring that climate finance, especially adaptation finance, flows to those who need it when they need it. That can only be achieved through informed policymaking and synergies between private and public actors. Increased private investment in adaptation action is an essential step – leveraged, where necessary, by public funds. Innovative instruments are also needed. Much greater creativity is required from the financial community to design flows, mechanisms and instruments that tailor finance to the broad diversity of cultural and socioeconomic contexts in need, particularly those in developing countries.

Rice paddy in Laos. Photo by <a href=
Anna Hoch-Kenney on Unsplash”>

Urban adaptation – Heidi Tuhkanen

When it comes to urban adaptation, AR6 presents three options for managing risks to critical infrastructure, networks and services: (1) sustainable land use and urban planning, (2) sustainable urban water management and (3) green infrastructure and ecosystem services. Two of these three options actually describe processes – planning and management – which can be used to implement the third – green infrastructure. The report recognizes the need for these processes to be “inclusive, integrated and long-term”. However, these three seemingly simple and commonly used words are a tall order, highlighting the challenges with institutional processes that often maintain the status quo. For example, in planning, the choice is often not between two outcomes (sustainable planning or poor planning) but rather between characteristics of processes – those that navigate and negotiate trade-offs between conflicting aims and agendas, almost always with limited time and resources.

In this, AR6 correctly highlights that institutional factors currently limit adaptation. Given the right enabling conditions and capacities, urban planning could be one process where different knowledge holders and sectoral actors come together, increase their awareness about the implications of different options, and negotiate the trade-offs arising from these options. However, to do so, the institutionalized processes and the larger systems in which they reside must change. They must value and invest in early and continuous engagement with multiple stakeholders – and empower marginalized groups to be central to those processes. Through its work in projects such as B.Green (Europe) and City Health and Wellbeing Initiative (Asia and Africa), SEI takes a holistic view of urban planning and its role in adaptation – recognizing that urban planning is both a tool for implementing green infrastructure and a process that requires fundamental change.

Forms of knowledge – Sukaina Bharwani

AR6 emphasizes the diverse forms of knowledge, particularly Indigenous and local knowledge, that are required to address the “adaptation gap” and take advantage of the “brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all”. Recognizing and integrating these diverse forms of knowledge are key to both the concept of climate resilient development articulated in the report and to the mission of addressing the mismatch between the supply and uptake of climate services. For example, involving low-income and marginalized residents in informal settlements in adaptation planning processes can uncover underlying drivers of vulnerability and unlock new transformational solutions. Steps must be taken to address key barriers to transformational adaptation and climate resilient development. Among these barriers are fragmented and siloed approaches to planning; inequitable partnerships between local and municipal governments; and inadequate information, finance, technological resources and human capacities.

As mentioned in the report, SEI’s work on climate services has attempted to address these challenges. Our work aims to shift away from a focus on developing products to developing processes by using a holistic approach to transdisciplinary knowledge co-production. This approach aims to build individual and institutional confidence and capacity at all levels, both formal and informal, and to strengthen social capital, networks and institutions. These are key ingredients needed for science-informed, decision-driven and climate resilient development. However, harnessing diverse knowledge through transdisciplinary co-production processes takes time and resources. These efforts cannot easily be scaled from one place to another. This presents a challenge for addressing the growing “adaptation gap” that the report recognizes. If we continue with established methods at the established pace, this gap will only grow. The situation underscores the increasing urgency of the need to use this collaborative approach to accelerate learning from each other about successes and failures.

Management of knowledge – Julia Barrott

AR6 continues to emphasize the role and importance of climate services – “the generation, tailoring and provision of climate information for use in decision-making at all levels of society”. However, the term continues to be used as a catch-all for an array of services providing and translating climate data. While this generalization recognizes that all climate services share common challenges, it fails to capture more expansive, end-to-end services that are emerging. These services, embodied in national and regional adaptation knowledge platforms, increasingly include a continuum of knowledge resources aimed at raising awareness; building capacity; and sharing valuable examples, solutions and lessons for the various stages of the adaptation cycle. These platforms are essential stewards, brokers, and managers of knowledge – as our signature SEI platform and network, weADAPT, has shown for 15 years now.

AR6 abounds with references to the importance of knowledge – and the side effects of lack of knowledge in limiting adaptive capacity and contributing to maladaptation. However, explicit references to “knowledge management” are sparse and do not duly recognize the importance of systematized collation, curation, and translation of knowledge, such as is being done by these platforms. Effective knowledge management at the national to global scale is crucial for avoiding duplication of efforts (and mistakes), optimizing limited financial and human resources, and accelerating learning from experience to inform and improve interventions. The recent KE4CAP project, which brought together 30 of these platforms worldwide, sought to help spread the successes, innovations, challenges, lessons and potential of these platforms. SEI’s roadmap fortransforming knowledge management for climate action articulates what must happen next. To scale up successful adaptation, better knowledge management is needed so that the world can identify the ingredients of successes and failures.

A mangrove forest in Senegal. Photo by <a href=
Curioso Photography on Unsplash”>

Transformative outcomes – Michael Boyland

The urgency of the climate crisis means that the latest IPCC report has a particular focus on transformation, picking up from the IPCC special report on 1.5°C. The IPCC’s one-line definition of transformation is ‘referring to changes in fundamental attributes of natural and human systems’. This latest report goes much deeper and discusses the nuances of transformation; framing it in the context of adaptation as the positive changes that we need to see in response to the climate crisis.

Although the report notes adaptation progress across “all sectors and regions”, there remains a reliance on incremental, short-term measures and immediate benefits. Such an approach limits the potential for transformational adaptation. This means we still don’t have enough evidence of what transformation might look like in different contexts (something which ICoE-TDDR has been working on).

What we do know, however, is that prioritizing more just and equitable adaptation outcomes is non-negotiable for climate resilient development pathways. The report points to a few things in this regard, including addressing root causes of vulnerability, contesting political arrangements, and decolonizing climate knowledge systems (themes which SEI is prioritizing). As highlighted above, this also requires identifying and addressing recognition injustices.

In Asian contexts, where the role of social protection as an adaptation measure is highlighted, transformative outcomes depend upon supporting women’s access to resources, information and decision-making processes. Overall, stronger coherence between adaptation and (disaster) risk reduction policy and implementation can facilitate more transformational impacts, particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Vulnerability and adaptation options – Ruth Butterfield

AR6 incorporates a welcome characterization or understanding of vulnerability as dynamic and multi-stressor (as long recognized and assessed within SEI). Risk described simply as the potential for adverse consequences has been redefined as a function not only of climate hazards, exposure and vulnerability (as in previous reports) but also of the impact of human responses to climate change. Such risks can result from the potential for responses to fall short of their intended objectives (maladaptation), or from potential trade-offs with, or negative side-effects on, other societal objectives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The further elaboration of activities to identify the intrinsic vulnerability and exposure of communities, cities and regions before the identification of adaptation actions is a positive development.

The figure in AR6 for classifying climate and adaptation responses (SPM.4b) visualizes their contributions to the SDGs and their benefits or disbenefits to particular sectors and social groups (accounting, for example, for ethnicity, gender and equity). Work with the Future Resilience for African CiTies And Lands (FRACTAL) project identified adaptation actions in urban and peri-urban areas in Africa and their corresponding benefits to the SDGs as a means of highlighting best practices and building decision-makers’ capacity (from community levels upwards) to consider adaptation options in their pursuit of wider objectives to address local challenges. AR6 recognizes that urbanization offers a critical opportunity to advance climate resilient development (development that both adapts to climate risks and mitigates greenhouse gas emissions). Integrated and inclusive planning that includes indigenous communities and local community groups in decision-making about urban infrastructure (as highlighted in the FRACTAL project), can significantly increase the adaptive capacity of both urban and rural settlements (particularly coastal urban settlements).

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