by Susanne C. Moser PhD

Climate change adaptation standards are necessary: The alternative is unacceptable

Why we should consider climate change adaptation standards as part of the climate governance toolkit?

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A few years ago, a colleague of mine who heads up the environmental planning and climate resilience efforts of a mid-sized African city confessed she just threw out every single climate change adaptation planning guide she had collected over the years. None of these “best practice” guides (mostly from Europe and North America) actually helped her do her work south of the equator, so she couldn’t see holding on to them. No thanks to procedural adaptation standards!

Climate change adaptation standards—No thanks!

Another colleague, currently assisting local communities in the San Francisco Bay Area with their efforts to prepare for sea-level rise, sent me a well-considered email arguing against standards for climate change adaptation, suggesting essentially that the field is too young, our practices not tried and true, too nascent to standardise them. If anything, he argued, we need more freedom for experimentation, not confinement in the straitjacket of uniformity, to figure out what worked. No thanks!

And while I defended the need for adaptation standards in that exchange, I myself have long been known to argue that there is no single or simple answer in determining what “adaptation success” might mean.1 There are far too many value judgments, trade-offs, cross-sectoral and cross-scalar complexities and context-sensitive questions involved to give any one answer, and all stakeholders (including the private sector) need to be at the table to answer them.

But does that then not contradict the very idea of standards, which by their very nature assume that there is a particular way of going about climate change adaptation that is better than their lesser alternatives? So, if we cannot answer what “success” is, how can we possibly set standards for adaptation to climate change?

Climate change adaptation standards are necessary… Because the alternative is unacceptable.

Admittedly, these are pretty sharp arguments against standards. If only it were that easy to dismiss them! For starters, there are the very practical questions I—and many others—get asked nowadays by planners, decision-makers, policy-makers, leaders of professional societies, philanthropies and non-governmental organizations: What adaptation practices work? Which are better than others? Are we making any progress toward resilience? How should we build infrastructure now?

What is a good adaptation decision? How do we design an adequate adaptation process? Who should sit at the table? How should we train adaptation professionals? What is ethical practice? I wish there was something I could point to that would help me answer these questions with more than my personal judgment from 20-some years of experience. And now that there is an explicit adaptation goal in the Paris Agreement, finding reliable answers to these questions has become an imperative.3

Beyond this first layer of practical questions lie deeper issues though. Consider this: anyone who goes for something as simple and personal as a chiropractic treatment can be assured the practitioner has been professionally trained, carries a license, and regularly attends professional development sessions to maintain that license.

If one would feel the treatment was inadequate or harmful, there is a process in place to hear the grievance and get compensated if actual harm is found. In climate change adaptation—an arguably far more complex and consequential endeavour—there is almost no professional training (a few courses offered around the world is all!); no assurance that such training is comprehensive or sophisticated; no certification; nor a process for mediating contrasting opinions about adequate or negligent professional behaviour.

But you might say, adaptation is carried out by professionals, say engineers, conservation specialists, health care provider, or planners, and each of these professions has its standards. Is that not enough? Surely, no business would think of hiring an engineer who had not been adequately trained and certified; no municipality would approve the budget for upgrading its infrastructure if that bridge, road or sewage treatment plant were not built to specifications that ensured performance for a specified number of years.

Standards convey values

Any one metaphor or way of framing the adaptation challenge will bring forward different sets of concerns and issues to which we need to pay attention. That is why it is essential to bring a wide variety of voices to the standard-setting table so that different perspectives and situational contexts can be considered.

But consider what lies beneath the standards that guide risky, uncertain, experimental and unproven procedures! They reveal certain values that we wish to maintain, even if we cannot ensure success. In the above example, the protection of human dignity, respect for informed decision-making, an appropriate balance of rights and responsibility of all involved, an imperative of learning from the trial, and the importance of trust come through.

As we move toward setting standards for climate change adaptation, we may on the surface haggle over technicalities, but underneath find ourselves enmeshed in the profoundly important negotiation over the values they bespeak, the values that should guide humanity’s path forward in an uncertain climatic, natural and social environment. As to the values that might guide us, we can draw on widely accepted ones: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights might be a fruitful, if general, starting place.5 The Earth Charter 6 may serve as a more directly relevant complement to guide the development of climate change adaptation standards given its focus on values informing social and environmental sustainability in a continually changing context.

A place to start

For sheer efficiency and ease, it might be useful to start these difficult negotiations with the standards we already have in place. It seems only reasonable to begin the development of adaptation standards with an inventory of existing standards that determine what we do; what, where and how we build; how we act; and then examine each for their fitness for, and responsiveness to, changing conditions.7 In doing so, it is prudent not to assume a particular climate target but perpetual change.

The next step then is to assess which of these existing standards, if implemented, would help us become better prepared for changing average and extreme conditions? Which of them hinder us from instituting better practices? Can those existing standards be adjusted by adding an “uncertainty buffer”? Or can they be made “dynamic” (i.e., by moving from fixed numbers to standards that are relative to a baseline, which will require regular updating)? That way climate change could be mainstreamed into existing practices, and—while clearly affecting stakeholder interests—be easier to accept by those who will have to enact them.

Only after existing standards have been fully considered, should we ask bigger questions: What are we missing? What practice relevant to climate change adaptation are we overlooking? In what ways is adaptation unique or significantly different to demand novel approaches? How do we create space for innovation without undue violation of the deepest values we wish to maintain? What is flawed or biased in existing practice that new standards could help transform fundamentally?

Susanne C. Moser, PhD

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