Guest post by Jami Dixon, Researcher at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, as part of the Interdisciplinary Exchanges Series

Local adaptations to climate change were discussed on the 15th September 2014, when academics and practitioners convened at the University of Leeds. The workshop was part of a series of Interdisciplinary Exchanges funded by the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) and was hosted by the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, facilitated by Andy Dougill & Lindsay Stringer.

The goals of the workshop were:

  1. to discuss obstacles to adaptation and issues that influence the ability to compare between and learn across studies of local level adaptation;
  2. to identify the some of the challenges for local adaptation policy and practice.

Two related themes structured the workshop: ‘Conceptualising obstacles to adaptation’ and ‘Challenges for local adaptation policy and practice’. Speakers included Jami Dixon (Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds), Katharine Vincent (Kulima Integrated Development Solutions) and Martin Rokitzki (Oxfam GB), with closing remarks from Chasca Twyman.

Through stimulating discussions around the themes, a couple of recurrent issues emerged. These issues are relevant to both conducting interdisciplinary research on adaptation and working at the nexus between research, policy and practice. They relate to how adaptation is defined, by whom, what we refer to in this blog as the adaptation languages and the implications for linking research, policy and practice.

How adaptation is defined – “adaptation language”

Interdisciplinary research (integrating disciplinary perspectives) and transdisciplinary approaches (which include external stakeholders) provide a way to understand complex problems such as adaptation and increase the impact of research on policy and practice. This ‘new way of working’ requires shared understandings to be developed.

We use the same words, such as adaptation, but can be referring to different aspects. For example, we found adaptation can be used to describe a particular action, such as selling off livestock, or a process, such as reforming governance structures. It can be planned and autonomous. It can be successful or unsuccessful in reducing risks or exploiting opportunities, depending on the spatial and temporal scale of analysis.

Whether adaptation is defined as an outcome that can be measured, or as a process that facilitates learning, is another critical question. Adaptation as an outcome fits with the narrower definitions found within the mainstream climate change literature, but does not adequately reflect the complex local level realities where adaptation takes place. To further complicate debates, development programmes are often referred to as climate change adaptation, regardless of the extent to which they take into account changing risks posed by climate change, as Katharine Vincent outlined “all adaptation should be development, but not all development is adaptation”.

Successful communication requires clarity and understanding, and is impeded by the use of undefined buzzwords and jargon. Implications of “muddy” language around adaptation exist for linking research, policy and practice. Lack of clarity in the English language adds extra complexity when translating into other languages.

Adaptation Obstacles

Obstacles to adaptation in the climate change adaptation literature, as determined by a recent review, can be divided into different categories, e.g. institutional, physical or financial factors. Some studies also distinguish between whether obstacles are a constraint, barrier or limit, depending on the amount of effort required to overcome them. However, these are often subjective assessments and there is little consistency in how they are used across the literature. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report proposes that constraints, obstacles, and barriers are synonymous with each other, whereas a limit represents an end point for adaptation (Klein et al., 2014).

Lack of shared understanding on what constitutes an obstacle, constraint, barrier or limit to adaptation, makes it difficult to synthesise and learn lessons across local level adaptation studies; highlighting a missed opportunity. Different framings and labelling obstacles could shape and prioritise policy options, which could lead to addressing short-term, easy wins, without consideration of structural, longer term issues. This highlights the importance of understanding the complexities of the adaptation language and the relationship between research, policy and practice.

Integrating research, policy and practice

Whilst scientific advances are increasing in relation to climate change, this has not been met with enhanced use of climate science in policy and practice. Increasing attention is being given to capacity building as a way to better integrate scientific knowledge into development policy and practice. This highlights an underlying assumption that science is needed to solve the adaptation problem and that current policy and practice are inadequate.

The potential to challenge such assumptions about the research, policy and practice nexus was discussed. For example, we considered how we can start with existing capacities, what people are doing and understand which practices may be (or can be enhanced to be) robust under future climates? Such a grassroots level, autonomous adaptation-driven approach is different to the top-down reliance on research for new, technical solutions as planned adaptation. In summary, can we draw lessons from local adaptation practice to better inform research and policy, rather than the other way around?

Boundary work and boundary organisations

What inter- and trans-disciplinarity mean in practice raised broader questions, such as: whose role and responsibility is it to communicate and disseminate research findings? Whose role and responsibility is it to ensure that research has an impact on policy and practice? Or to look at it another way, to what extent is it the responsibility of researchers to ensure that their research has impact on policy and practice?

Research is increasingly moving towards an impact agenda, where academics researchers are required to demonstrate impact on policy and practice. The role of boundary work and organisations is thus becoming important. Boundary work is “carried out at the interface between communities of experts and communities of decision makers” (Cash et al., 2003:1) Boundary organisations are formalised institutions that act as intermediaries between the arenas of science and policy (Guston, 2001).

Boundary organisations aim for the simultaneous production of knowledge, or co-production, which usefully facilitates collaboration between different experts. Partnerships with boundary organisations, such as Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, can offer a potential way to more effectively work at the nexus between academic research, policy and practice. Despite the increasing pressure for research-into-impact, the academic institutional system has been slow to catch up. Encouraging and fostering academic & boundary organisation partnerships requires additional funding, time and resources, but offer scope to improve research impacts and adaptation planning.

In summary, the difficulties of doing inter-disciplinary (and trans-disciplinary) research on adaptation and enhancing the use of research in policy and practice should not be underestimated. To enhance adaptation to climate change requires approaches which facilitate understanding, learning and collaboration between researchers, practitioners and policy makers (see also Stringer & Dougill, 2013). This requires clarity, effective communication and ongoing engagement as opposed to the linear model of ‘translating’ science and disseminating it to policy-makers and practitioners at the ‘right’ time. These may not be new ideas, but they do require us to rethink how we view the linkages between research, policy and practice.

Resources for further reading

Journal Articles

  • Cash, D. W., Clark, W. C., Alcock, F., Dickson, N. M., Eckley, N., Guston, D. H., . . . Mitchell, R. B. (2003). Knowledge systems for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14), 8086-8091. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1231332100
  • Guston, D. H. (2001). Boundary Organizations in Environmental Policy and Science: An Introduction. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 26(4), 399-408.
  • Klein, R. J. T., Midgley, G. F., Preston, B. L., Alam, M., Berkhout, F. G. H., Dow, K., & Shaw, M. R. (2014). Adaptation opportunities, constraints, and limits. In C. B. Field, V. R. Barros, D. J. Dokken, K. J. Mach, M. D. Mastrandrea, T. E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K. L. Ebi, Y. O. Estrada, R. C. Genova, B. Girma, E. S. Kissel, A. N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P. R. Mastrandrea & L. L. White (Eds.), Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stringer, L. C., & Dougill, A. J. (2013). Channelling science into policy: Enabling best practices from research on land degradation and sustainable land management in dryland Africa. Journal of Environmental Management, 114(0), 328-335. doi:

Blogs & Websites

Jami would like to thank Katharine Vincent, Lindsay Stringer and Andy Dougill for their input and comments on this blog.

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