Is conservation missing the boat on climate adaptation?

This week I have attended the 5th European Congress on Conservation, organised by Society of Conservation Biology.

My reason attending this conference is that I am curious as to how climate adaptation is treated/examined in other fields (it’s also in Finland, which of course is a plus).

In general, I want to have a better understanding of conservation and ecosystems research as these are obviously integral to climate adaptation approaches such as ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. 

Coverage of climate change and adaptation

In the opening plenary of the conference, the Executive Secretary of IPBES, Dr Anne Larigauderie, spoke about the important linkages between Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)  and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Climate change has been getting coverage in other presentations as well but mostly in terms of mitigation, carbon offsetting, bioplastics and bioeconomies.

What is interesting to me who thinks about climate change and adaptation on daily basis is that much of the research presented at this conference is directly relevant to climate but the link is often not simply made.

I went to a presentation on indigenous communities and how they were using local knowledge to preserve biodiversity. The presenter outlined the main threats to conservation (increased floods, droughts and extreme events) but climate change was not one of these.

One keynote had even climate change in the title but focused mostly on ecosystem and conservation planning without discussing what changing climate means for conservation planning.

But luckily I am not alone in these observations.

A colleague from a government ministry noted the exact same thing and posed the question: why are we not talking about climate adaptation in the context of conservation in this conference?

In the conference program, there are only 4 presentations/posters that mention the word “adaptation”.

Those that do mention adaptation (mind you, I am one of those 4 and 1 of those cancelled attendance) do not really look at climate adaptation but how climatic variables potentially impact on species. The closest that this comes was a talk on assisted migration of species in changing climatic conditions, and how novel tree planting methods could count as adaptation to climate change.

Participants that I have spoken with at this conference about including climate change and adaptation in their research either a) give me a bewildered look or b) are very interested in thinking how they could consider this in their research.

 

Building bridges between concepts and disciplines

Much of the research conducted in conservation and biodiversity has lots to offer to climate related research.

A researcher I spoke with is actually looking at what the disappearance of salamanders does to an ecosystem with a case study in Belgium. These species are highly impacted by a fungus related disease that can wipe out whole populations.

This to me is very relevant for how we plan for a changing climate. We need to understand this kind of research (super complex I might add!) to understand how ecosystems function, and how these could be impacted by climatic changes.

But what this conference has really reinforced to me is that we need a stronger bridge between conservation science and adaptation science.

There are many lessons that both sides are overlooking at the moment.  Such lessons could provide much richer research and generate broader lessons that can feed both into conservation and adaptation planning and policy approaches.

Sustainable livelihoods and well-being are for example investigated across presentations, and how protected areas could be planned and what they need to consider.

Another neat concept is that of “conservation culturomics” where researchers are using big data to understand better how our cultural preferences impact on our views on species conservation.

There has been also discussion on biodiversity offsetting but yet again in the absence of linking that to climate change and what role changing climate could pose for such efforts.

Main take home messages

My aim with this post is not to put down the conference by any means. The presentations in themselves have been excellent and the organisers have done an amazing job in putting the conference together.

What I am trying to do however is to raise awareness of the importance in conducting research in a non-stationery rapidly changing climate that needs forward-thinking.

I appreciate that climate adaptation in particular is not an easy to issue to include in modelling efforts but this is not why it should be excluded.

The missing of adaptation could imply partly a gap in future-oriented thinking. If we focus on researching what is happening now, we need to also draw lessons what this could mean for the future in the long-term.

What then when increases in temperature propel species to move or causes significant population decline? Or when an ecosystem composition changes so significantly that the current plans and models are no longer accurate? In such cases we can come up to adaptation limits that then necessitate very different actions.

But what I have also learned from this conference is that my understanding of climate adaptation and of those who specifically work on this topic is very different, and that many other areas of research contribute indirectly to adaptation science.

That, to me, also calls for more reflection as to in what context and how adaptation fits across different disciplines, and how my work can better draw from and integrate with those working in conservation and ecosystems research.

ps. and this was written even before Will Steffen’s keynote on planetary boundaries that won’t paint a pretty picture…

 

 

Time for a new paradigm in capacity building? 

This week a news item caught my attention, an interview piece with Saleem Huq, the director of International Centre for Climate Change and Development. The commentary focused on the issue of capacity building, climate finance and how this is being dealt with in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This is often a heated topic for debate especially when it comes to overseas aid and now climate finance: how do you build capacity in people and organisations in a way that is meaningful and effective?

This is not obviously just an issue for development aid or for developing countries; many organisations also struggle with how to effectively build capacity of their staff.

Capacity building: the common story

Saleem’s explanation of how this happens is worth a read (read here) but it pretty much tells a simple but familiar story where a consultant goes to a country, depending on the contract spends some time there, runs a few workshops, flies back home, files a report, makes recommendations and gets paid.

As Saleem aptly notes,most of the money that has been spent (I won’t say “invested”) has gone to private companies in the developed country that allocated the money and if any capacity has been built it has been of those “consultants”.

Now, the objectives of the project or program have been fulfilled. Yet, at the country level, the real question is what was left behind.

This is what one of my good friends from Vanuatu calls “capacity substitution” and not capacity building.

True capacity building is where you leave something behind e.g. a set of skills that people can continue to use in the long-term, a system that keeps generating that knowledge in a way that has long-lasting impact on how a particular job is done.

So why is it so easy to accept the mantra of “let’s build some capacity” but so difficult to actually define what that means in practice, let alone to implement capacity building in a meaningful way?

Short-term learning sucks

I have my own capacity building stories as well.

I once participated in a program that was supposed to boost my capacity as a leader. The program consisted of attending three workshops in a year, without any follow-up in between.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Attending workshops is invigorating when you have a chance to really focus on a topic, meet new people, gain new knowledge and share experiences. I am not against workshops.

But I am against short-term learning.

At the time, I was lucky enough to be already in the Coaching for Leaders Academy, a community that has truly changed my life and my leadership group who keep me accountable for who I am and can be.

Leadership is something that can be learned but it needs long-term commitment, everyday practice and constant monitoring of your own behaviour, those of others, and deep on-going self-reflection of values and principles.

Many capacity building programs and projects however use the tip of the iceberg model where individuals gather together for a burst of knowledge and then return back to work or their institutions without a long-term plan how they should use that knowledge or how they should grow as leaders.

Or the all too common model that Saleem notes in his article where only one person travels to another country and provides his/her expertise without being able to develop long-term systems to build specific capacities within that country or department or organisation. 

How to judge value 

But I don’t want to be too cynical here either. In order to truly understand what capacity building means, we also need to ask those whose capacity is being built.

Some people like the workshop model and it suits them well. Some are too busy to engage in a more long-term format and can find such short meetings more valuable.

But I would say that the majority of us need the long-term view and commitment to change things and learn new skills.

Still, the value of a capacity building program ultimately lies with those who participate.

If we want to truly understand what value for example “building resilience” or “capacity building for climate adaptation” workshops, programs and projects have, we need to do a proper follow-up to see how such knowledge and skills have changed people’s lives.

We need to also think how we can truly built systems that are long-lasting and can help people not only to learn new skills but also maintain those skills in a changing context.

There is no silver bullet here as each individual and organisation is different in their needs, ways of learning, and commitment to then implement what they have learned and have capacity for.

New paradigm for learning and building capacity?

But perhaps it is time to start thinking in a more long-term systematic way what the target group whose capacity we want to build needs, the best modes of learning to deliver access to new knowledge and skills, and how we can then measure and evaluate what success looks like in that context.

Saleem suggests investing more in universities that are building capacity and have a track record in doing so.

This is not a bad idea especially given how universities are now becoming more flexible in the way they teach, embracing new opportunities such as flipped classrooms where students go through material at home and come to class to debate and reflect.

If we are serious about capacity building, we need to truly innovate in the way we design such programs and projects, delivering value to the participants directly, and enabling long-term sustainability of those skills and systems.

I am very excited to see what kinds of innovations emerge and are embraced in this area, and of course continue to advocate for lifelong learning as the main capacity building skill that we all need.

 

 

Can we keep a score on climate?

Last week I attended Climate Update 2018 event in Brisbane where we heard from various eminent speakers on the state of climate and what different organisations, such as the Queensland government, are doing in this space.

In his presentation at Climate Update 2018, Mark Howden from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focused on the latest climate science: for example 2017 was the hottest year on record.

Many of the graphs showed how we are losing ice at a rate not seen before, how the poles are melting away, how carbon emissions are tracking at upper levels, and how the numbers of natural disasters have increased in recent years.

Especially if you work in climate change space, we receive these kinds of news sometimes almost at a daily rate. But how do we keep up with this information? How do we know where we are actually at? And once we know where we are at, how do we put in strategies in place to start influencing the goals and outcomes we want?

This raises also questions such as how many times does a place need to flood until we recognise that this is the new business-as-usual? This comes down to tracking and measuring where we are at.

Measuring climate change adaptation and state of the art

In my field, climate adaptation, there are countless reports and frameworks looking into how we could track, measure and monitor our activities and whether we are making progress in adjusting to the current and predicted impacts of climate change.

One recent initiative that has aimed to advance our thinking is the recent report by UNEPDTU that focused on understanding the latest knowledge on the kinds of metrics we can use to track and measure climate adaptation, including how successful it has been.

As the report notes, there are diverse frameworks and methodologies now in use for measuring and tracking adaptation, all of which are used in a highly disorganised way. This means that there is a lack of common agreement how such measuring should be done.

To complicate matters, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement  notes that there is now a global adaptation goal.

Yet, we still do not have a definition or idea what that goal could or should look like in practice, which of course influences what we are to measure.

Capturing information on mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases) uses a single measure of calculating how many tons of carbon have been released or alternatively not released. These are the yearly numbers that for example companies produce to showcase their actions for climate change and how they are going “low carbon”.

But with adaptation, we are far from agreeing on a metric partly because adaptation is often seen as a social process that is context dependent. Yet, we do need to find innovative ways of tracking and measuring that are not just dependent on big data or scientific assessments but in factors that can engage communities to do better and perform better.

Eventually, it all comes down to winning or losing.

4 Disciplines of Execution

In the leadership and management literature one of the influential books has been the 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey and Huling.

Why influential? Because it provides a pragmatic way for organisations to manage change, achieve their wildly important goals, and finding a way to stay focused on reaching those goals in the middle of the “whirldwind”.

The whirlwind is the everyday-life that most of us face and that permeates often our decisions and time use. The daily emails, responding to urgent requests; it is a space that we occupy to do the work we do. If you find yourself asking “where did this day go?”, you are likely to have been in the whirlwind.

The good news is that there is a different way of thinking that can help in getting focused on achieving your goals. This comes down to these 4 disciplines:

  1. Focus on your wildly important goal. Be clear about the goal and narrow it down so that you know what you need to do to reach it.
  2. Act on lead measures. Which actions do you need to take to reach the goal? Which factors can you influence?
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard that lets you know how you are progressing.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.

The accountability is important because

“Great performers thrive in a culture of accountability that is frequent, positive, and self-directed. Each team engages in a simple weekly process that highlights successes, analyzes failures, and course-corrects as necessary, creating the ultimate performance-management system”.

What the authors have found is that especially keeping a scoreboard has fuelled organisational change. The idea behind a scoreboard is to increase engagement but also giving people a sense of whether they are winning or losing, and if so what measures they can take to influence the outcome:

“Great teams know at every moment whether or not they are winning. They must know, otherwise, they don’t know what they have to do to win the game. A compelling scoreboard tells the team where they are and where they should be, information essential to team problem solving and decision making”. (p. 66).

Much of this will come down to engagement and the ways that we are able to show people what the current situation is, where we are heading, and what measures we can take to either advert the undesirable outcome or support the accomplishment of the goal.

Creating a Scoreboard for Engagement

Reading this book has led me to ask questions around how we could use such an approach in climate change adaptation. We certainly gain glimpses of where we are at with climate change by looking at all the biophysical data, such as the rate of melting icesheets or the record number of hot days each year (higher than usual).

We have the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but these come out every 5 or 6 years, which is a long-time to wait for the state of the art knowledge on climate change.

This kind of data we do have but what kind of data would lend itself to create a Climate Scoreboard? For climate adaptation in particular, what would a global, national or local climate adaptation scoreboard look like?

Would it be number of disasters averted, number of households protected during or from flooding, number of insurance claims reduced? If the Climate Adaptation Scoreboard would be in the middle of the town, next to the bank, what information would be most compelling to give people a sense of engagement and progress?

In creating scoreboards, there are 4 essentials that are critical:

  1. Keep it simple. Show only the essentials. Make sure the scores are readily available and simple enough to get the main message across.
  2. Visibility: can people see it?
  3. Lead and lag measures: Lead measures are factors the team can influence (doing), lag measures are the result we want (what the team is getting).
  4. Winning or losing? Quickly determine what the current status or situation. This needs to follow the 5-second rule: can the team tell in 5 seconds where they are at?

In this process, the importance of data cannot be emphasised enough:

“Data is like light- the best growth agent known. When winners are given data that shows they are losing, they figure out a way to win. With the lights on, they can see what they need to do to improve” (p. 74).

 

The critical question then is to identify the data that we need to grasp the state of progress and then how to use that data to visualise where we are at.

The core of the book is really about engagement and innovation: when you have clear and wildly important goals, people will engage especially if they can see how their activities are moving the needle towards something worthwhile. Identifying ways how we can make and track “adaptation wins” will be crucial and am hoping in the next decades we can see true innovation in this space.