This is my pet topic, it has been ever since I started my PhD in 2009 and dived head on into the world of climate change adaptation.
I identify as an adaptation scientist much to the dismay of some as there is an on-going debate as to whether climate change adaptation is simply a topic of interest, an actual discipline, or a discipline about to turn into a science.
The debate often divides people into two camps:
On the one hand, there are those who argue that pure focus on adaptation leads to a narrow self-referencing scientific community who ignores most of the lessons already learned from other disciplines.
On the other, there are those who argue that climate adaptation is evolving into its own discipline and/or science that draws upon the richness of other disciplines while still developing its own theory and practice.
For those outside of this field this following discussion might seem trivial and unnecessary. But for those of us who research and work in climate change adaptation it is an issue that seems to divide people. People even get quite emotional about it although often in the end they say it doesn’t really matter.
But, it does.
It does because the way we define something also influences on how we think it should be approached, which methodologies and theories should be used, which assessments are most reliable, and who has authority to make claims in this particular area.
The next generation of adaptation scholars is growing up right now
During my PhD I co-authored a commentary with five other early career researchers on the kinds of issues that climate change adaptation as a field of study is facing, how to take some of these issues forward, and what that means for the development of the field.
In our piece, “ Climate adaptation research for the next generation”, one of the core questions we posed was “How much knowledge specific to adaptation does one need in order to contribute to the field and what should the balance be?”
The answers to this question are still very relevant because the answer that we each give clearly signals also the way we think about climate adaptation, and what it means to truly “know the field”.
I ended up arguing about our statements with more senior people who did their studies at a time when climate change adaptation did not even exist as a separate issue for study.
For them, it is easy to argue that climate change adaptation is just a new lens that we now use to study social science issues, and that we should ground our work in existing disciplines and not purely on climate change adaptation as this is not a discipline.
That viewpoint is certainly alive but, however, history.
Climate adaptation now has its specific conferences, forums, journals, university courses and networks and we have seen the emergence of adaptation ‘experts’. As Dovers and Hezri noted in 2010, climate adaptation has evolved into its own epistemic community.
More recently, Saleemul Huq also noted the following: “There may not be an adaptation science yet…but there is certainly one in the making and in five to 10 years from now there will be a body of knowledge specific to climate adaptation”.
This relates to what it means to “grow up” in a scientific sense in the realm of climate change adaptation. My co-authors and I all did our PhDs more or less grounded in climate adaptation while we drew upon many different disciplines.
But we all shared a somewhat common understanding of climate adaptation, its strengths and weaknesses and theoretical underpinnings because we had been following the field and had an understanding of its history.
The need for consolidation
Given the prominence of climate adaptation for research and policy and increased available finance, we are seeing increasingly people entering the field and the emergence of adaptation specific expertise.
Yet, we lack in many ways the global consolidation of the field, acceptance and agreement of the common methodologies and frameworks, and what qualifies as expertise in this new field.
Don’t get me wrong, we definitely do not lack frameworks since every new project, organisation, and program comes up with its own framework for climate adaptation that then drives project outcomes and research outputs.
This is in fact a major frustration that I have encountered many times from stakeholders in the Pacific Islands where the array of different climate adaptation frameworks and methodologies sometimes seems confusing.
Simultaneously the Paris Agreement has as one of its goals “global adaptation goal” that then needs to be measured and tracked, making adaptation a very much global issue.
So the question is: how do we consolidate a field that is forming, and consists of many different strands of knowledge, experiences, policy agendas, and a mix of global-local scales? And how do we validate adaptation expertise?
How to consolidate the field: Concise guidance on climate adaptation
For many who enter this field, whether as a scientist or practitioner, it can be overwhelming trying to grasp what climate change adaptation is. In this learning process it is essential that there would be common guidance to explain which are the key foundational papers in climate adaptation and how these have shaped the field.
One good example of this is Lisa Schipper’s and Ian Burton’s Reader for Adaptation to Climate Change which has collated major papers in the field, and provides so to say history of many of the core ideas that are still used in the field. Many of these foundational papers are highly cited and still pop up in reference lists in even recent papers.
There is also PROVIA guidance on how to assess Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation that provides guidance for academics, policymakers and alike on the most commonly used methodologies and tools available. One of the very reasons for the guidance has been in fact the increasing number of available tools and methodologies leading to confusion what works and where.
A new Global Centre of Excellence for Climate Adaptation has also been established that is going to synthesise much of the available information on adaptation and provide consolidation of that information. Australia likewise has its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility that has supported much of this synthesis and new research into what adaptation looks like in the Australian context.
These movements to me signal the process of recognition of climate adaptation as its own distinct sphere, whether as adaptation science or discipline.
What I am certain of is that there are more and more scholars and practitioners who are taking firm steps in becoming climate adaptation specialists and who will identify themselves more with this new discipline or science than any other area of study.
Time will tell what that science looks like but for now, my dream is that one day we do have a globally recognised robust adaptation science that has commonly accepted and tested methodologies, underpinning theory, degrees and curriculums, and certification of expertise for best practice.
There’s plenty of space for leadership here.