Adaptation pathways: two recent papers and implications for maladaptation

In the climate change adaptation literature, pathways thinking seems to be cropping up everywhere. A quick search I did for papers published 2014 onwards threw up 25 distinct case studies engaging with adaptation pathways-speak, with examples ranging from 'priming' multiple stakeholders to find transformational solutions to climatic risks in Indonesia (Butler et al., 2016), to ethnographic research examining pathways of past adaptation in Eastern Europe (Campeanu et al., 2014).

This was not the case in the summer of 2013, when I took a break from writing up my PhD thesis to attend the STEPS Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability in Brighton. Bringing together a stimulating mix of PhD students in varying stages of their research, the summer school first introduced me to pathways thinking. Or the STEPS Pathways Approach.

The Rivers of Life exercise at the STEPS Summer School where we charted our personal pathways (complete with obstacles, leaps forward, histories, and aspirations).

That exposure shaped a key part of my thesis and I went on to write about conceptualising household responses to climate variability and change as intersecting and internally messy pathways. More recently, I have been arguing for examining how past trajectories of development open up or close down the adaptation options space available to people, hinging the pathways approach to a justice lens of winner and losers and tradeoffs.

Households facing multiple risks can undertake different response pathways. Source Singh et al. (2016).

But what are adaptation pathways and do they offer anything radical? Two key papers I read recently, offer some insights. 

In his sweeping literature review of four adaptation pathways approaches, Eisenhauer (2016) argues for more robust engagement with the political aspects of adaptation. He argues that meeting the ‘adaptive challenge’ of climate change (described by Karen O'Brien, 2012 as 'addressing the beliefs and world views that contribute to how individuals and groups approach the problem of change') requires rethinking politics within the context of adaptation. He finds that none of the four approaches critically engage with 'antagonistic political relations' — all of them seem to assume that problems can be solved through rational consensus processes, which is often not the case in complex problems riddles with issues of uncertainty. Second, he emphasises that none of the approaches forefront challenges posed by intersectionality and relational political ecologies.

The second, empirical paper I read was Fazey et al. (2015) who examine "past adaptation to provide new insights about how future-oriented adaptation path-ways might be approached." They helpfully differentiate between adaptation pathways approaches which map out possible future adaptation option trajectories vs. pathways lenses, defined as "an approach to frame understanding of past change and response dynamics." Importantly, a pathways lens interrogates:
"how and why change and responses may have occurred, the different ways different groups have perceived, responded to or navigated change, contextual issues (e.g. politics, social norms, values) that affect change dynamics and the role of power in shaping change and human agency." p 28
This work is close to a paper I presented last year on using historical trajectories of development to chart adaptation opportunity in fast growing and increasingly unequal countries such as India. Fazey et al. examine adaptive action in four cases: the Solomon Islands, Canada, Romania, and Australia, to suggest past actions have implications for how and at what pace communities transition, what adaptation options are undertaken in the present and available in the future, and the dynamic rubric of social differentiation and power within communities. They go onto suggest that "understanding past change provides inspiration for new and transformative futures".

Contrary to this hopeful tone, colleagues and I have recently argued that "understanding the past provides warnings to not make the same mistakes and jeopardise new and transformative futures". While more ominous in its tone, our way of interrogating historical pathways to diagnose current adaptation inaction and future adaptation options might be the wake up called needed in today's India.

There is a reason why Indian farming is the way it is. Looking back and tracing its development pathways helps us understand the narrow 'adaptation space' we have today. For more read our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures". [Picture taken in Gulbarga, Karnataka]

I leave you with a final, fascinating, if somewhat sombre, quote:
"One of the negative effects of enhanced adaptive capacity or flexibility may therefore be that it reinforces change, which in turn requires more adaptive responses or flexibility, partly explaining acceleration of global change. More transformative forms of adaptation therefore require some ways of stepping off the accelerating treadmill." (Fazey et al. (2015, p 15)
Our paper "Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures" is soon to be published in Climate and Development. Email me at csingh[AT]iihs[DOT]ac[DOT]in for a PDF. Comments/feedback most welcome!


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