Community work in a climate of adaptation

Are scientists and policymakers missing the mark on how they think about the challenges posed to people and communities by climate change? Our new publication explores this question. 

There is no doubt that climate change is real and that it is exceeding our expectations; regardless of what the many nations of the world choose to do following COP21, in the near term, legitimate and often dangerous consequences of climate change will continue to materialize for people around the world. Some of these consequences are dramatic and unpredictable, such as major storms and short and long term droughts, and the certain human costs of these hazards demands that we find ways to be more resilient--to endure and bounce back (or, better, perhaps, bounce forward).  

Other challenges, however, are more persitent, chronic, and "directional" perhaps, such as the loss of arctic sea ice. These changes demand a special kind of response--adaptation. Inherent to the concept of adaptation is that people have no choice but to make the best, or at least the most, of the "new normal" of the Anthropocene, though we frankly have no idea where (or if) that new normal will eventually settle.

Surely, it is in people's best interests to be thinking forward about how the world is changing, and governments at all levels do need to find ways to better support people in this regard. A problem with focusing too much on resilience and adaptation, however, is that these concepts are too oriented around external drivers of change and new and novel conditions.  

There are two issues here: first is the potential that adaptation to climate change will facilitate acquiescence to climate change and a retreat from fighting the social problems that drive it. Climate change involves both winners and losers; adaptation for the former may mean exploiting new business opportunities afforded by an ice free arctic, while for the latter it means losing their homes as they erode into the sea. In other words, climate change is a social and environmental justice issue, and as such we cannot allow the adaptation agenda to limit or undermine our ability to halt (or even reverse?) these changes. Otherwise, we allow climate change adaptation, which is supposed to be about solutions, to become a mechanism of continued structural and cultural violence against the world's many disadvantaged peoples.

What we’re doing out here, it’s not adaptation. We’re reacting, coping with the changes that we’re seeing. It takes every resource we have to keep things running as they are and maybe make little improvements as we go. I’m not thinking about what I need to do differently in the future. I’m thinking about how to keep the animal control building funded so we don’t have to put down all those dogs. I’m thinking about how to keep my employees from quitting when they’re sick of having to fix broken sewer pumps and getting people’s shit all over them in the process.

— Community Manager, quoted in paper.

The second problem, and the one we address in our new paper, is that this adaptation agenda can obscure the ongoing efforts, initiatives, and visions for the future that people work toward every day, climate change notwithstanding. In our paper we call this collection of activities "community work": work that people do in order to improve quality of life and services for not just themselves but their neighbors and the community at large. As an analogy, think about housework: work that is essential to the functioning of the household but that goes overlooked and underappreciated because it is overshadowed by the more valued "man's work" in society.

We worry that climate change adaptation may similarly be overshadowing community work.

At the heart of the concept of community work is the recognition that stability, not change, tends to be the goal that drives people's actions. In evolutionary biology this axiom is known as Romer's Rule. We have repeatedly encountered evidence of this premise in our research with experts from rural communities around Alaska. Indeed, many people are actively frustrated with the language of climate change adaptation; they find it to be counter-intuitive and even a distraction. This is especially noteworthy, because the Indigenous peoples of the North are generally proud (and rightly so) of their adaptability. 

With this paper, we are not trying to devalue the importance of climate change adaptation, and the science, policy, and planning that accompany it. We are simply trying to emphasize that people are not standing still when the impacts of climate change come knocking on their door. If the goal is to enable people not just to endure through these challenges but to thrive and self-determine through their actions, recognizing and leveraging this nuance is essential.

To expand on this notion, I share the concluding paragraph from our new paper: 

Ultimately, scientists and policymakers who work in the area of climate change seek to provide a science-based framework for decision-making and development, and adaptation and its related concepts have proven effective as a shared language. Many researchers have highlighted the various caveats and pitfalls of this vocabulary however. As one way to address these issues, we offer community work as a concept that, when paired with adaptation, more accurately represents of how people and societies experience and respond to change than the concept of adaptation alone. Community work avoids the implications of environmental determinism and victimization that presently muddle the discussion and contribute little to our understanding of how local people and communities cope with local problems, which is often from the bottom up and too often with limited human and financial capital. With a more robust theoretical understanding of human behavior that incorporates people’s values and intentions for both stability and change, venues for supporting communities that do not fall into the developer’s trap or issues of social justice noted above become possible. It has been argued that the best first step for addressing climate change impacts on communities is to fix existing problems that have ready solutions, such as food and water security and failing infrastructure (Gerlach et al. 2011). The perspective argued here requires only that policymakers reorient their attention toward these community goals, helping people to solve existing and future problems on their own terms and regardless of whether these initiatives map in clear-cut ways to state prescribed and sanctioned modes of development.