Environmental Buzzwords: Transformative Adaptation

Current Location: London, UK

A guest lecturer in my Environmental and Resource Economics course spoke with us about her experience at COP23 last week. She mentioned that one of the relevant and growing topics among the side events (the non-negotiating portion of the conference) in Bonn has been the concept of “transformative adaptation.” The concept itself is rather vague, in that no quantitative metrics have yet been designed to measure policy approaches to this version of adaptation, but I am nonetheless intrigued by this perspective on adaptation to climate change.

In a nutshell, transformative adaptation characterizes approaches to adaptation that seek to create systemic or cultural changes rather than the traditional approaches to adaptation like changing regulations or implementing carbon taxes. Clearly transformative adaptation cannot be pursued alone as a climate change mitigation or adaptation strategy, but I find it interesting because it takes a more demand-side approach than regulation.

There is not a clear definition of transformative adaptation because it is difficult to define what constitutes a systemic shift. I did a little research and found this UKCIP report called “Transformative adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed” which seems to be equally vague on pinning down the definition. As a general fan of well-conceived infographics, I think this chart does a good job of categorizing activities which would fall under transformative adaptation as opposed to iterative adaptation.

Lonsdale, K., Pringle, P. & Turner, B. 2015. Transformative adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed. UK Climate Impacts Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

I personally feel that the bottom left quadrant, transforming collective patterns of thinking & action, is an important long term strategy for pursuing environmental initiatives. If I didn’t feel that way, I don’t think I could write this blog. As an (up-and-coming) economist, it is somewhat counterintuitive that I take the position of individual responsibility. It is basically a core tenant of economics that individuals are profit/utility maximizing and that individual choices have no meaningful impact on society as a whole.

I am not such a naive idealist as to believe that my individual reduced waste is anything more than a drop in the ocean. The fact that I personally don’t use shampoo bottles obviously doesn’t do anything on a macro-level. But I do believe that individuals have the power to shape norms. I believe that environmentally friendly consumption and behavior should become a cultural norm, and that norms have the power to make substantial macro changes on environmental problems.

The belief that individual actions cannot make a difference is exactly the belief that I’d like to change. Systemic change does matter and I am of the opinion that top-down regulation is not the only way to achieve it. Environmental consciousness can become a norm in the same way that a general attitude towards wastefulness and consumption is currently a norm. I’d like to think we can live in a world where living a zero-waste or a low-plastic lifestyle is completely mainstream. I think it would be fantastic if society no longer viewed the changes I’ve undertaken in my monthly challenges as drastic or outside the norm.

Therefore, even though I do know that my actions are just a drop in the ocean, I also know that every drop makes waves (and the metaphor comes full circle).


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