Dusting off Ecosystem-based Adaptation theory


                                                            Photo credit: Ashley Cooper

In my first post, I had a brief look at what EbA is and identified why it is not quite reaching its potential yet. An output rather than an outcome centred orientation in practice and an oversimplified context analysis hinder the achievement of EbA objectives. For this blog post, I promised to dust off the overlooked theory, aiming to point out what is already there to improve context analysis to reach aspired adaptation outcomes.

Adaptive capacity and social learning

Some terms that are commonly used in EbA theory (but not always in practice) are adaptive capacity, social learning, socio-ecological systems and resilience. Adaptive capacity refers to the ability to adapt to climate change, which in general terms depends on economic, environmental, social, educational and leadership factors. While these factors accumulate, some factors have been identified to be especially relevant to develop adaptive capacity, namely processes relating to learning and leadership:anticipation, reflection, knowledge application and retention, experimentation, assessment and effective leadership. These are the really difficult to develop adaptation skills and mechanisms, requiring long-term engagement, flexibility for non-linear growth and room for trial and error. 

Closely connected to adaptive capacity is social learning. While there is no agreement over which enables the other - social learning enabling adaptive capacity or vice versa - the importance of social learning mechanisms, that is the iterative, participatory process of sharing and developing a common understanding of knowledge has been highlighted. This is not to say that EbA projects targeting conservation or environmental management cannot be beneficial to communities. To the contrary, they are an important part to support climate change adaptation. However, such projects fall short of the potential that lies within EbA to develop the future-oriented adaptation processes that beneficiaries can run independently over years to come.

Socio-ecological systems and resilience

Having looked at adaptive capacity and social learning, and the necessity to advance learning and leadership for climate change adaptation, it makes sense to study the theory that can help to analyse contexts comprehensively. This is where I turn to socio-ecological systems and resilience theory. Socio-ecological systems theory recognizes the interconnectedness between humans and the environment. 

Generally, complex systems - which socio-ecological systems are - cannot be broken down into their individual parts. Think of group dynamics - however long or detailed you study a group of people, a full understanding of the connections and dependencies is not possible, because they are hidden, ever changing and the dynamic is more than the combined attributes of each person within the group. There are influences from other systems outside of that group, that may function very differently. A complicated system, on the other hand, like a car, is difficult for most people to understand but a skillful car mechanic will be able to fully grasp how it functions. There is no hidden agenda, no power dynamics or other manipulations in a car, it is no more than what it is. In short, a complex system evolves, while a complicated system is constructed. It is not very encouraging to read that it is impossible to grasp the context, that being the socio-ecological system, fully - I understand and feel the same. However, there is much usefulness in the theory.

For one, by recognizing the complexity of the context, one refrains from oversimplifying the socio-ecological system. It encourages focusing on a desired outcome, rather than an output. It allows a better analysis, that acknowledges that while you can observe and understand much, there is an ever changing dynamic that requires flexibility and learning in project design and implementation. Secondly, there are well operationalised resilience models that are based on socio-ecological systems. With the expected impacts of climate change, such as an increase in frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events and shifting weather patterns, a resilience understanding of "bouncing back" to the previous state after a shock is not sensible. Being able to continue a path towards a development goal despite shocks and adversity is a more relevant resilience model in the face of climate change. This model has been well operationalised in societal functions to anticipate, mitigate, prepare, respond and recover from, and adapt to negative consequences of sudden and long-onset climatic events, thus, being able to learn and take proactive measures (i.e. leadership). Here, opportunities to develop and challenges to resilience are located in the socio-ecological system itself, highlighting the need to iteratively analyse connections and dependencies as much as possible (read for example Becker, 2014). Applying socio-ecological systems resilience can be very useful for the analysis of contexts, identification of entry points and comprehensible EbA projects that instill an adaptation process.

I hope this short introduction to EbA theory has highlighted the need and provided the concepts for developing learning and leadership for climate change adaptation in EbA. In the next blog post, I will attempt to tie theory to practice which should be an interesting read!

Further reading:

Becker, P. (2014)Sustainability Science. Managing Risk and Resilience for Sustainable Development(Oxford, United Kingdom: Elsevier)

Engle, N.L. (2011) 'Adaptive capacity and its assessment',Global Environmental Change, 21:2, 647-656.
Folke, C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T. and Rockström, J. (2010) 'Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability',Ecology and society, 15:4, 20

Folke, C., Colding, J. and Berkes, F. (2003) 'Synthesis: building resilience and adaptive capacity in social-ecological systems' in F. Berkes, J. Colding and C. Folke, (eds)Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change(Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press), 352-387

Mcleod, E., Szuster, B., Hinkel, J., Tompkins, E.L., Marshall, N., Downing, T., Wongbusarakum, S., Patwardhan, A., Hamza, M., Anderson, C. and Bharwani, S. (2016) 'Conservation organizations need to consider adaptive capacity: why local input matters',Conservation Letters, 9:5, 351-360

Phuong, L.T.H., Biesbroek, G.R. and Wals, A.E. (2017) 'The interplay between social learning and adaptive capacity in climate change adaptation: A systematic review',NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 82, 1-9

Rossing, T. (2015) 'Introduction to Ecosystem-based Adaptation: A nature-based response to climate change. Global Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Mountains Programme',United Nations Development Programme, Learning Brief 1

Walker, B., Holling, C.S., Carpenter, S. and Kinzig, A. (2004) 'Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems',Ecology and society,9:2, 5 

Visit http://globalwarmingimages.net/ for Ashley Cooper's powerful set of photos from around the world on climate change inspires action.

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