“Why don’t you pick something realistic?” How I ended up in climate adaptation.

I’m always intrigued by the actual stories how people have found their careers. Contrast to many popular career development books and advice out there, it seems to me that “paths” are rarely straight forward as life happens and people find themselves faced with opportunities, which take them one way rather than the other. I thought it would be prudent that my first blog post on Adaptation Hooks is about how I became interested in climate adaptation and share some of my personal reflections on how a career can develop. In my case it has not emerged from a carefully planned strategy but rather having a vision (even if a blurry one) and taking on opportunities as they arise.

I started research in climate change adaptation before it was a hot topic. After finishing my Masters Degree in Environmental Science at University of Turku (Finland) in 2007, I managed and led the first climate adaptation research project in Zanzibar, Tanzania. This research project for the Finnish Foreign Ministry aimed to provide information on how to target adaptation related policy and funding efforts and looked at specifically how coastal forest buffer zones could be used as an adaptation measure. I became increasingly interested how governments, communities and the private sector can start changing their strategies and livelihoods especially on coastal areas with the projected climate change impacts. This called for more research.

Armed with a PhD thesis topic focused on adaptation of coastal communities, I started looking for supervisors in Finland in 2008 but I was (politely) asked whether I could pick something “more realistic”. This was partly because in 2007/2008, there were not many research institutes or centres even globally, which were solely focused on climate change adaptation. Luckily I had some contacts in Australia at Griffith University where there were on-going activities to make climate adaptation a more prominent area of research. In 2007 the University wan the bid to host the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and established its own Griffith Climate Change Response Program, making Climate Change Adaptation one of Griffith’s core Areas of Strategic Interest.

My PhD research proposal was accepted and in 2009 I joined Griffith to research how coastal communities can adapt to climate change, and how governments are considering climate change adaptation in their policy- and decision-making processes. I was initially interested in community engagement and public participation and the links between communities, local and state governments, and how decisions got made.

Soon into my research however I realized that much of what I had read about climate change adaptation in the literature made little actual sense when I spoke with decision- and policy-makers and community members. Concepts such as ‘urgency’, ‘anticipatory action’ and ‘local’ were not as clearcut as I thought they were. Somewhat confused about this disparity, I started wondering whether some of the assumptions we had made about climate adaptation needed to be revisited.

Alas, enter Ben Preston who in 2011 was at the Oakridge National Laboratory. Ben is one of the critical thinkers in the field and we began a conversation that has led to several joint publications and a still ongoing working relationship. We initially identified eight climate adaptation ‘heuristics’, which are simply put conventional wisdom (rules of thumb) that people use to make sense what climate adaptation is, and which seemed to be widely circulated and accepted in the research community. We challenged these assumptions and in the meantime my own thesis research became very much focused on the nexus between adaptation theory (what we know about adaptation in theory) and adaptation practice (decisionmaking processes on implementing adaptation). In many ways, this is where I see my work contributing the most: researching the nexus/interface between theory and practice, and not being afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom.

Lately, my work and research have continued this strand of research regarding the concept of Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA), and the way people use, seek and access information about adaptation, including weather and climate information. This aspect of my research has led me to look at sectors such as tourism and how private sector is engaged with adaptation in the Pacific Islands context. Some have asked why tourism, and my answer always is that tourism is a global volatile industry that has direct local impacts. Understanding how the sector is responding to climate change is having and will have an impact on local and national economies and lives. Not to mention the dilemma of international tourism and associated emissions from flying…

To sum it up, my research and interests lie in trying to understand the cognitive side of decision-making as to what people are thinking, what is driving their decisions, and how science could play a more supportive role in those decision-making processes whether it is businesses, governments, communities or individuals.

So, this is my story so far. My aim with these blogs is to reflect over some of the things I am reading and researching and hopefully contribute to a reflective and meaningful discussion with those who find it interesting (or annoying or great) what I write.

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