Building (Local) Social Infrastructure to Face Global Climate Change

This post is based on a paper I co-wrote with Eric Sarriot for the “CEDARS Center” in 2010.  We wrote it as a discussion paper for the Global Health Council meeting that year entitled Hurry Up Slowly—Building Social Infrastructure as Adaptation to Climate Change in Developing Countries.
Obviously, from the title, we were thinking about adaptation to climate change in economically poorer nations and regions.  While that was our focus, I believe that our summary of climate change scenarios, adaptation strategies, and the importance of building “social infrastructure” to create resilience are important for any community that is thinking about climate change adaptation. 
Because we were focusing on economically poorer areas of the world, our “lens” for examining adaptation was food security.  The challenges of creating food security in these environments is different from what we face in Northern California, from where I write. For that reason, I will not focus on food security in this summary/adaptation of the paper, but more generally on the issue of social infrastructure—a concept that applies, I believe, to any community or region. However, given the increased economic disparities within my region (and across the entire US) that have become apparent in the past dozen years, a focus on poorer communities and vulnerable populations concerns not just places in Africa (for example) but about our own back yard.
This post is the first to two to explore this issue in the context of adaptation to global climate change.  The second delves a bit more into three keys to creating social infrastructure in my nearby and uses the concept of “social sustainability.”


Three Global Climate Change (GCC) Scenarios

A reading of the literature on climate change—see especially IPCC 4th Assessment Report and the Global Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events: Understanding the Contributions to Infectious Disease Emergence (Pachauri and Reisinger, 2007; Relman et al., 2008)[1]—suggests three broad scenarios for how climate change will proceed. These are presented in the following table, along with a summary of their possible impacts upon food security and, more generally, health and human development.[2] Note that these impacts concern, especially, the most vulnerable populations.

Three Climate Change Scenarios and Their Potential Impact

Climate Change Scenario Potential Health/Food Security and Other Impacts
1. Progressive climate change

(e.g., shifts in mean temperatures and rainfall amounts, changes in lengths of growing seasons)


Probability profile:

Irregular (high variability) over short term; incrementally significant over long term.

a.   Loss of coastal habitats reduce some food production activities.

b.   Increased rainfall variability leads to decrease in water resources in some locations and decreases irrigation potential with reduced food production.

c.   Increasing temperatures in many locations lead to more demand for water for irrigation, thus leading to lower yields.

d.   Mitigation efforts drive up input costs, reducing agricultural productivity.

e.   Change in range of infectious disease vectors.

f.    Increase in respiratory illness due to changes in air quality.

g.   Increased conflict due to resource competition

h.   Increasing temperatures lead to heat stress on animal and fish stocks, reducing fertility and increasing mortality.

2. Extreme events

(e.g., floods, destructive wind storms, droughts, climate induced fires)


Probability profile:

Already observable; increased frequency expected; limited predictability at more local levels. Likely for certain geographic profiles (lower elevation coastal areas, etc.).

a.   Heat-related deaths (heat wave).

b.   Deaths and injury (flood, fire, storms).

c.   Spread of infectious disease post-event (flood).

d.   Spread of pests reducing food production (flood following drought).

e.   Loss of cultivable land (flood/drought).

f.    Loss of water resources (drought).

g.   Heat-related stresses reduce cattle reproduction and increase deaths.

3. Threshold events or tipping points

(e.g., negative synergies with multi-system failures, seen through historic events such as massive loss of life in 16th century Mexico—reported in Global Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events)


Probability profile:

Unpredictable—High Impact

a.   Epidemics (cattle or human).

b.   Crop failure (large scale).

c.   Broad ecosystem collapse (leading to uninhabitable zones).

d.   Economic crash due to systemic and multi-system spiraling effects.

e.   Massive out-migration from affected zones.

f.    Conflict (violence) due to migration and resource scarcity.

While there is consensus that GCC will lead to an overall warming of the earth over time and that extreme events will increase along with these changes, there is great uncertainty about what the progressive changes will mean for individual nations or regions.  There is also uncertainty about the exact timing and location of the extreme events (with the exception of the effects of warming on coastal habitat and ecology, which can be anticipated with more certainty). Here in Northern California we see extremes of rainfall and drought and attendant problems that lead to the (seemingly) now-common phenomenon of catastrophic fires. Is this the “new normal?”  We do not yet know.

There is great uncertainty about the health and food security impacts of GCC. Again, while there is high certainty that extreme events will lead to decreases in food production in areas affected by them (Bloem et al., 2010; USAID, 2007; Metz et al., 2007), and there is the potential for increases and spread of infectious diseases,[3] how specific nations and regions will fare is poorly understood. Thus, while the potential for great changes in food production (for example) exist, and infectious agents and vectors could change, there is no current knowledge about the distribution and severity of these kinds of changes. The frequency of extreme events has already increased and is likely to increase further as the impact of GCC is felt. Once again, this overall trend is difficult to link to specific projections at regional and local levels, apart from specific geographic profiles such as lower elevation coastal areas.

Less is known about threshold events, although there is historical evidence (Relman et al., 2008) that these have been important throughout human history. In a hyper-connected world, a crisis in one human system can have negative synergies on other systems, with the risk of multi-system and catastrophic failure (i.e., multiple extreme climate events with crop failures and concomitant economic shocks, as well as violent conflict).[4]

Adaptation Strategies

A variety of factors can modify the effects of these changes/events in given areas and over time. These include, among others, economic growth or stagnation and population growth. While population growth rates are in rapid decline, population momentum ensures continued growth in overall population for the coming generation and beyond. The reality of the business cycle—amplified through highly integrated product and financial markets—also modifies the effects of climate change in complex ways given the link between economic growth (or stagnation) and research and development of new technologies that affect food production and the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.

The challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the continued growth of these emissions makes it clear that humans must prepare to face the realities of global climate change.  This lends urgency to thinking clearly about what adaptation will look like. The need to focus on resilience is growing. Indeed, the IPPC 5th Assessment Report focuses a large part of its discussion on mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change in much greater detail than the 4th assessment.  It defines adaptation generally as

(t)he process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects.

Smit and Pilifosova (2001) provide a more precise definition of adaptation.

Adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change.

Their chapter provides an excellent review of the literature on adaptation, and I summarize only a few key points here:

  • Not surprisingly, “underdevelopment (and I would add, severe income disparity) fundamentally constrains adaptive capacity, especially because of a lack of resources to hedge against extreme but expected events.” Adaptive capacity is defined as building “the potential or capability of a system to adapt to (to alter to better suit) climatic stimuli or their effects or impacts.” This is also referred to as building Not surprisingly, “Activities required for the enhancement of adaptive capacity are essentially equivalent to those promoting sustainable development.
  • “Some people regard the adaptive capacity of a system as a function not only of the availability of resources but of access to those resources by decision makers and vulnerable subsectors of a population” and “the presence of power differentials can contribute to reduced adaptive capacity.”
  • “In general, countries with well-developed social institutions are considered to have greater adaptive capacity than those with less effective institutional arrangements—commonly, developing nations and those in transition.”

These points focus on a number of key elements related to the ability of communities to adapt to local manifestations of GCC—especially those that concern “underdevelopment and the need for social infrastructure.”

A World Bank report (2009) states:

Our combined experience suggests that the best way to address climate change impacts on the poor is by integrating adaptation measures into sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies… Many adaptation mechanisms will be strengthened by making progress in areas such as good governance, human resources, institutional structures, public finance, and natural resource management. Such progress builds the resilience of countries, communities, and households to all types of shocks, including climate change impacts…

In effect, this argues that building the social and institutional infrastructure of communities enhances their capacity to respond and is thus, in itself, the beginning of an adaptation that is intentional, anticipatory, long-term, strategic, and cumulative. The World Bank document is one of the few that attempts to estimate the global costs of adaptation to climate change and is useful in delineating “hard” and “soft” adaptation approaches.

  • Hard options involve acts of engineering such as river and sea dikes, beach nourishment, port upgrades, rural roads, irrigation infrastructure expansion, and improvement of health infrastructure and delivery systems.
  • Soft adaptation measures, on the other hand, might include things such as early warning systems, community preparedness programs, watershed management, urban and rural zoning, and water pricing. They rely on effective institutions supported by collective action. (emphasis added)

Adapting to risk scenarios has costs—some of which are estimated in the literature and others that are not. The World Bank authors, referring to hard options, put their cost “between 2010 and 2050 of adapting to an approximately 2oC warmer world by 2050 in the range of $75 billion to $100 billion a year.” No similar estimate is made for soft options.

While a number of authors (The World Bank, 2009; Ayers et al., 2009; USAID, 2007) acknowledge the nonnegotiable necessity of soft adaptation to improve human health and welfare, with or without climate change shocks, and to create conditions for effective hard adaptation measures, most of the climate change and health literature of recent years has focused (for partly justifiable reasons) on the need for new and hard strategies, and additional adaptation strategies and investments.

Soft options are probably addressed less frequently because they may be considered part of the underlying development requirements, as summarized by Ayers and others (2009):

Given that a community that is vulnerable in an existing climate is likely to be vulnerable to future climate change, it is not necessary to wait for climate change data to become available to start building adaptive capacity.

Soft adaptation strategies raise the baseline status of communities and will provide for easier implementation of solutions, to the extent they can draw on or expand traditional/local adaptation strategies. Hard strategies leave substantial gaps in terms of adaptation. They will be harder to implement without advances on soft strategies, which include the development of strong local decision-making structures or, to return to the language of the authors of the World Bank study, “empowered communities.” In a paper on community-based adaptation to the health impacts of climate change, Ebi and Semenza (2008) note the importance of what is needed in comparison to the current situation:

The focus has been on interventions that are the responsibility of national and state public health agencies. Although these interventions are critical, they will not be sufficient, even with optimal resources and engagement. Additional activities will need to be taken by individuals within their communities.

In reality, both hard and soft adaptation require local community action to assess needs, use information, and plan for responses. Assessment, information use, and planning can only be conducted in the context of strong and inclusive local institutions.

Developing Social Infrastructure for Adaptation (or Building Social Capital for Collective Action/Resilience)

For local actors to prepare for the effects of GCC requires strong “social infrastructure” or, what is commonly referred to as the formation of social capital

An examination of the social capital literature as it applies to community development in general (Woolcock, 1998) and climate change in particular[5] suggests that social capital development that builds adaptive capacity in the face of GCC and enables the implementation of hard and soft strategies requires the following: (1) information-based decision making; (2) multi-level decision making and coordination of action; (3) opportunities for lateral learning and sharing; (4) attention to equity not merely in ensuring that vulnerable groups are “beneficiaries” but that they are “around the table” at which decisions are made; and (5) conflict resolution mechanisms.

The Meaning of Social Capital

Ebi and Semenza (2008) provide a useful reminder of the meaning of social capital, describing it as “the potential embedded in social relationships that enables residents to coordinate community action to achieve shared goals, such as adaptation to climate change.” They go on to define briefly three well-known forms that social capital takes: bonding, bridging, and linking capital. Bonding capital enables communities to mobilize based on the deep relationships of trust that exist within largely homogeneous groups. Bridging capital refers to the resource for action derived from heterogeneous groups joining together to build relationships that bring capacities to the table that might be lacking within homogeneous groups. Linking capital concerns relationships that extend beyond community groups, connecting such groups to individuals and groups of power (for example the state in its various manifestations).

Elbie and Semenza note that all three forms of social capital are critical to enabling communities to adapt to climate change. Woolcock (1998), writing more generally about the role of social capital and development notes the same things and goes further, pointing out the challenges that exist if various forms of capital are lacking. His ideas join Ebi and Semenza’s (2008)—who make this argument explicitly in relation to climate change—when he notes that even high levels of bonding capital quickly reach a self-limiting role in development because homogeneous groups often lack essential skills and experiences to face the challenges of poverty. In addition, Woolcock talks about the problem of too little bonding capital, examples of which exist in post-conflict environments, where basic lack of trust within groups renders communal action difficult. My experience in local government also suggests that lack of “bonding” capital can also exist because local leaders’ egos or desire for personal gain can limit their willingness to reach across boundaries to foster collective action. For both groups of authors, finding ways to support the development of bonding and bridging capital is critical for local efforts—be they general development or adaptation to the local effects of GCC.

However, both also see the necessity of moving beyond these critical, local types of social capital to linking communities to those “in power,” also known as linking capital. Elbie and Semenza limit their consideration to the importance of linking capital, which is essentially about creating collaborative efforts between community groups and those in power (health, administrative, and political authorities). Woolcock concurs, calling this type of capital “synergy,” but goes a step further and notes that another type of social capital is critical to ensure useful “top-down” development efforts. He adds that credibility and capacity (technical and experiential) of state and civil society institutions are vital for top-down approaches to development in order to work and to effectively marry top-down and bottom-up approaches.[6]

I turn now to examine briefly certain specific elements critical of creating/mobilizing social capital.

Information-Based Decision Making

As the World Bank’s The Costs to Developing Countries of Adapting to Climate Change: New Methods and Estimates notes (2009), empowerment of communities requires that they have full access to climate-relevant information systems. In addition, the report states that “effective adaptation should build upon, and sustain, existing livelihoods and thus take into account existing knowledge and coping strategies…” This obviously does not deny the role of professionals, technicians, or experts, but resets the focus of expertise toward the production of actionable information.

Taken together, these two points indicate the importance of collecting and using relevant climate information and the experiences of local adaptation to enable decision making about current and future adaptation needs. The keys to information use for decision making include both its routine and consistent collection and processes that allow people of varying education and experience levels to use it.

All societies have ways of adapting to climatic (and other) shocks and while most writers agree (Tompkins and Adger, 2004) that the challenges of adapting to future climate change lie outside their experienced coping range, learning of and adapting these coping mechanisms will be critical to ongoing adaptation efforts. Bhattamishra and Barrett (2010), though not writing in the context of GCC, provide a useful summary of community-based risk management actions (CBRMA) illustrating how they exist in many places. Other studies cited in their paper illustrate the vast array of strategies used—often in the context of climatic shocks.

Given the foregoing I would propose that local information systems include these three elements at least:

  1. Community diagnosis (to identify current coping mechanisms).
  2. Community-based information systems.
  3. Ongoing multidimensional assessments, from institutional assessments—to build credibility (Orobaton et al., 2007)—to more comprehensive monitoring of the delivery and results achieved by basic social services.

The tools for collecting information at local levels meet with professional-cultural reluctance for their implementation, but they are well established and proven to be workable at the district level. What is less clear is, again, how to develop processes to enable emerging groups to analyze and then use data to make decisions; more work needs to be done to create these processes. Despite this challenge the key will be to develop routine data collection systems and to consistently, over long periods, help groups meet to analyze data and progress toward goals (see below).

Multi-Level Decision Making

The foregoing assumes that information will be used in ongoing ways to make decisions about community challenges related to GCC, and that the processes so developed will build the adaptive capacity of communities. The idea of multi-level decision making is merely another way of talking about linking capital or synergy.

What specific structures are needed? Tompkins and Adger (2004) argue for a model that operationalizes Woolcock’s (1998) concept of synergy in the form of “co-management,” which they link to the idea of “networks of engagement,” which give people access to power and representation. Quoting Ostrom (1990), they state:

Co-management is one form of collective action whereby resource stakeholders work together with a government agency to undertake some aspect of resource management. Collective action in this context is the coordination of efforts among groups of individuals to achieve a common goal when individual self-interest would be inadequate to achieve the desired outcome.

Tompkins and Adger go on to acknowledge that “inclusive institutions and the sharing of responsibility for natural resources go against the dominant hierarchical institutional forms of most governments throughout the world.” They do, however, provide examples in their article of where co-management is working.

What this implies is that the specific form of synergy must involve private actors (communities) working explicitly with government agents to develop adaptation strategies (starting with a response to current food security challenges). The same authors speak of the need to “cement localized spaces of dependence.” This echoes the longstanding research of Kurt Lewin on how the formation of new groups enables significant behavior change by members.

Opportunities for Lateral Learning and Sharing

The issue of lateral learning concerns bridging capital and, perhaps, provides an answer to the question: Where does one start the process of co-management? Bridging capital is a necessary but not sufficient condition for increasing adaptive capacity of communities. It is important for moving beyond the limitations of bonding capital—especially in the face of the local manifestations of GCC—but requires linking capital to move toward realistic solutions to poverty and GCC’s effects.

Lateral learning could begin by focusing on information sharing about the state of knowledge on the probable effects of climate change (acknowledging the great uncertainty that exists at national and local levels). In a sense this concerns bringing various communities together to discuss current development challenges and consider the need for strengthened structures now and in the future.

Beyond this, forming networks should catalogue already existing adaptation strategies that groups use to adapt to risk. Bhattamishra and Barrett (2010) provide a useful summary of community-based risk management actions illustrating how they exist in many places. One challenge they acknowledge—and that could offer a second stage of questions for local groups to deal with—is the problem that most CBRMAs don’t work well in cases of broad co-varying risks—the kinds that are going to be common in GCC-induced events. Thus, emerging social structures should be enabled to both critically examine local adaptation strategies that could be useful models, but also consider their limitations and the opportunities to build relationships beyond them.

Lateral learning sends a strong message that local experiences are valuable and that solutions can be found within the local setting while acknowledging that GCC could introduce events that go beyond the capacity of the strategies that have evolved. Because it explicitly seeks to build bridging capital through joint learning, it provides a good foundation and starting place for discussions on the role of policymakers within the state. Thus, bridging capital builds community capacity to engage in its own advocacy vis-à-vis the state.

Attention to Equity

While the social capital concept provides a useful understanding of the value of different groups coming together to do that which they could not accomplish alone, it does not deal directly with the issues of exactly who is involved in creating the bridging and linking forms of capital. This raises the issue of equity and representation. Thomas and Twyman (2005) ask explicitly about the voices that are heard and the issue of the inclusion of traditionally excluded groups in decision making bodies. They articulate the concept of equity in relation to climate change adaptation processes this way:

Therefore equity in the context of climate change outcomes ought to be much more than simply ensuring that the vulnerable are treated fairly and buffered from unduly bearing the burdens of impacts. It should relate to a wide range of issues including: decision-making processes—who decides, who responds; frameworks for taking and facilitating actions; relationships between the developed and developing world; and also to relationships between climate change impacts and other factors that affect and disturb livelihoods.

While they are not addressing directly the issue of bridging and linking capital, they are talking about creating new “social spaces” in which decisions about what to do about GCC at the local level can be debated. They point to the need for these spaces to “retain principles of equity and social justice” at their core. They conclude by pointing out the need for careful facilitation of the process: seeing a role for outsiders in asking questions and guiding debate about who should be around the table. The idea of outsiders playing this role is echoed in a manual on “people-centered” advocacy (VeneKlasen and Miller, 2007), which focuses not just on getting community issues to the table but “enlarging” the table to include more voices, especially those that are traditionally un- or under-represented.

Thus, efforts to create bridging and linking capital should not only consider the various kinds of networks that need to be developed but also ensure that “the poor” are not merely referred to in terms of being “beneficiaries” but also included around the decisionmaking table in tangible ways. This points to the need for intentional longstanding processes to ensure greater participation of all groups.

Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

A final point related to the development of the social infrastructure required to enhance community adaptation to climate change concerns the need, within actions that focus on creating bridging and linking capital, to set up mechanisms to deal fruitfully with conflict. I focus on this for two distinct reasons.

The first reason that conflict resolution skills will be necessary is because one of the effects of GCC is expected to be heightened tensions and conflicts over scarce resources. Nearly all the literature on GCC points to this seeming inevitability, with some arguing that even mean temperature changes are likely to lead to more conflict in local settings (Burke et al., 2009). This implies that the creation of new social spaces will be done, increasingly, in the context of ongoing conflict among participants. Thus, it will require skill to both create the spaces (creating safety for groups in conflict so they can come together) and to deal with conflicts that will arrive once people come into them.

A second reason why these skills will be necessary concerns the issues of power and equity, raised previously. Building trust, overcoming fear, and enabling decision making within groups in which power imbalances exist requires an attention to how power is being used to silence or exclude, to name it and to address it. These issues are often overlooked by program evaluators guided through technical expertise, but with attention are found to play an essential part in the sustainability of social development efforts (Sarriot and Jahan, 2010; Sarriot, 2002).

The fields of conflict transformation, adult education, and team building contain a variety of tools and processes that must be brought to bear to enable these groups to organize and move ahead. The existence of external facilitators that will bring new perspectives and approaches to newly forming groups will be an important element of external support to local adaptation efforts and should be a priority for donors.

Building Social Infrastructure

In considering these points it is clear that an investment in social infrastructure will be a long-term process and require a significant amount of process facilitation in many local communities around the world. As Ebi and Semenza (2008) note: “Preparing for and effectively responding to climate change will be a process, not a one-time assessment of risks and likely effective interventions.”

So where do we begin? How do we start to think about how to actually build this infrastructure?

There are few fully formed models that address all these issues comprehensively, especially for the creation of linking capital at the local/regional level, but there are a multitude of sectoral projects and programs that provide demonstration that such approaches can work in addition to a substantial learning basis.

Despite the lack of many practical implementation approaches, there are several critical points that should must be part of any efforts to develop bridging and linking capital.

Focus on Information for Decision Making

As noted previously, the local collection and use of primary data—both qualitative and quantitative—must form the basis for building decision networks. In fact, it is an oft violated rule that the only data worth collecting are to guide decision making. The specific kinds of information to be collected should be prioritized but also negotiated in each setting to ensure maximum relevance. The food/livelihood security approaches provide a useful starting place for answering information needs, including by more aggressively obtaining local information.[7]

This returns us to several points raised earlier about who should be around the table, the size of the table, and the role of participants. There is a need to explicitly focus on equity issues in forming groups and inviting participation.

Experience has shown us that power imbalances in groups must be acknowledged and managed appropriately. If decisions are to be made that represent the needs of all participants, then appropriate processes must be in place to ensure that. Building facilitative capacity that includes tools to raise voices and deal with conflict will be critical to ensuring that it is not merely the voices of the powerful that are incorporated into the decisions.

Time, Consistency, and Unity of Purpose

Time is a fundamental ingredient widely mistreated by project approaches. Some learning and key processes build and solidify over time, while projects are frequently operating on start-stop modes, which bear substantial opportunity costs in terms of human development (Shediac-Rizkallah and Bone, 1998; Witter and Adje, 2007). A review of Noraid health sector development projects argues that less successful and less sustainable projects are more likely to receive longer funding (Catterson and Lindahl Claes, 2003).

Time in itself does not suffice to ensuring progress in the building of human resiliency; two related concepts are essential and have received substantial attention in the management literature, but surprisingly little in the development and climate change literature:

  • Unity of purpose refers to multiple actors focusing on common goals, which can be made possible by the creation of social space and information systems discussed previously.
  • Consistency of purpose refers to maintaining focus and commitment to key issues over time. The world of development is notably falling short on this fundamental principle. Some exceptions are obvious, such as national immunization programs and recent efforts to bring ITN technology to the fight against malaria. At the local level, however (think district and below), both national and international actors can be involuntarily disruptive. This is most easily demonstrated by the absence of actionable information at those local levels of interaction with communities (Sarriot et al., 2008; Davis et al., 2009).

Clarity of Outcomes

The development of social infrastructure is not for the sole purpose of preparing to react to the effects of climate change. It is essential for communities to respond to changes of all kinds. Initial efforts to create social capital should focus on two distinct outcomes:

  • As noted previously, initial bridging capital efforts might focus on creating learning about adaptation strategies already in place to face uncertainty.
  • Initial data collection efforts and decisions should focus on identifying levels and then trends in community vulnerabilities with an eye to setting targets and developing plans to reduce then. With data on these issues in hand, and with an analysis of the meaning and classification of “vulnerability” in the community, emerging groups can develop plans to reduce it in the short to medium term.[8]

These outcomes are of immediate relevance: build a knowledge base, bring people together, and focus on using information to create plans based on locally available resources. Over the longer term the development of the disciplines of data analysis will lead to an ability to respond to the effects of GCC. Thus, focusing on today’s needs prepares the way enhanced adaptive capacity tomorrow:

  • A community active in examining information and making decisions to enhance its own welfare will be far better positioned to examine climate variability data, surveillance information, and evidence of climate impact on crop, health, and livelihood.
  • As basic health, livelihood, and human development indicators over time improve, the physical condition of communities will also position them to be more resilient to the shocks of climate change.


No one trying to tackle the complexity of Global Climate Change believes in rapid, simple, and easy fixes. One might argue that the culture of easy fixes is partly to blame for anthropogenic climate change. By reviewing the literature available to date, and mapping out scenarios for impact of GCC on local communities, as well as types of adaptation processes (or lack thereof) that can be promoted in these communities, there are three salient ideas, which should guide new efforts to build adaptive capacity/resiliency at local levels:

  1. Poor social infrastructure represents a source of insecurity and inadaptability.
  2. Even context-specific, hard adaptation strategies will be hindered in their effectiveness and impact in the absence of effective development processes focused on soft adaptation—which include the development of social infrastructure.
  3. In the face of uncertainty, progressiveness, complexity, and randomness of GCC threats, sustainable adaptation processes should emphasize the building of a responsive and capable social infrastructure. Proper respect for time as a factor of social processes, unity and consistency of purpose demonstrated through appropriate local information systems and metrics, and equity in bringing stakeholders around decision making processes will be central to these efforts.



[1] Please refer to the original document for a full bibliography

[2] The IPCC 4th Assessment address “likelihood estimates” for some of these, but virtually no statements of this kind can be made for individual regions or nations—let alone at the sub-national level, which is the focus here. However, the potential impacts listed here are broadly supported by climate change modeling activities. The problem, as noted in the Global Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events document, is that there are many pitfalls in extrapolating climate and disease; and other relationships from one spatial level or temporal scale to another.

[3] The literature (Relman et al., 2008) notes the following in relation to infectious diseases: overall increase in burden (consensus), but case-by-case it is hard to predict; shifts in the distribution is an almost certain outcome; shifts will be affected by acceleration in prevention and control measures.

[4] Risk Management “Science” has made forays into the public consciousness through recent publications, such as The Black Swan: The Impact of Unprobable Events (Taleb, 2007), which provides useful discussions on management of the risks of unpredictable system failures.

[5] I draw primarily from numerous authors for these concepts (Ebi and Semenza, 2008; Thomas and Twyman, 2005; Tompkins and Adger, 2004).

[6] These concepts in the literature echo some of our own experiences. Examples of bridging capital, for example, come from the world of microfinance in the idea of rotating savings and credit groups or federations of credit groups. Linking between community groups and decisionmakers was at the heart of remarkable and, to a high extent, sustainable achievements of an urban health project of Concern Worldwide in Bangladesh (Sarriot et al., 2004; Sarriot and Jahan, 2010). Both linking and bridging social capital were at play in projects evaluated, namely of Save the Children USA in Guinea (Sarriot, 2006) and through the Living University model.

[7] The Rapid Household Survey Handbook (Davis et al., 2009) provides a useful starting place for developing quantitative information collection methods. Other tools exist for qualitative methods, including Participatory Learning and Action—PLA (Freudenberger, 1999). Community-based monitoring systems and surveillance (nutritional and epidemiological) all have their set of challenges but have been implemented successfully in a number of settings.

[8] More detailed discussion of metrics and their production is required but can be informed by recent literature (Devereux et al., 2004).

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