Author Archives: sferg

Preparing society for future weather impacts

In 2015, there has been barely any discussion of climate change in the run up to the election campaign. It seems unlikely that it will be introduced as a major topic by political leaders before election day.

But UKCIP would like to offer voters, and candidates, some climate adaptation questions and issues to drop into doorstep discussions, schoolgate debates and office kitchen catch-ups.

So, why is adaptation to climate change relevant?

Preparing for the impacts of climate change is known as adaptation. Climate change most clearly manifests itself in the danger and misery caused by extreme weather (storms, heatwaves, droughts), as well as the slower shifts we are experiencing, for example in the length of seasons and sea level rise. These impacts of climate change all contribute to increasing pressure on infrastructure, business and the health and well-being of citizens.

Adaptation solutions to protect against climate impacts vary in scale and complexity, for example, engineering solutions to prevent flooding, making better use of green and blue infrastructure in urban areas, or raising awareness of how to keep cool in a heatwave. We are already making some adaptation changes, because climate change is happening and will continue to occur for several decades at the very least. For example, many flood defences already consider account of sea level rise. But stopping the causes of climate change – mainly by switching away from using fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) – will, in the long term, be the best way to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.

The climate is changing

There is little doubt that the climate is changing. In the UK, 2014 was the warmest year on record and the fourth wettest, while eight of the top ten warmest years have occurred since 2002. There are plenty of reliable online resources that provide technical information to confirm that climate change is real and caused for the most part by our use of fossil fuels. And warming global temperatures don’t mean it will just be less cold everywhere, it will change weather patterns for everyone, and in some areas the changes will be much more severe than others.

Preparing for the climate changes we can’t avoid is a sensible way to protect our society and to ensure that our children and their offspring will have the chance to enjoy a good quality of life.

There is already plenty of adaptation underway in the UK

The government produces a Climate Change Risk Assessment every 5 years, and this helps to create the National Adaptation Programme.

Many large companies that provide services we rely on such as energy and water supply have produced reports to show how they are preparing for changes in our climate.

Other sectors and businesses have also developed adaptation plans and resources. The NHS in England has adaptation to climate change as one of its strategic goals. The tourism industry has online guidance and information for tourism businesses. An annual heatwave plan is produced by the Department of Health, with advice for householders and carers on how to keep cool and identify the symptoms of heat stress.

But we need to do more…

Here are some ideas to discuss with party political representatives on the doorstep, or to introduce in your own discussions with friends, family and colleagues – even when it isn’t election time!

Weather and climate affect all of society in one way or another – it therefore makes sense to support adaptation at a cross-department level rather than treating it as a single, discrete issue. A committee of MPs recently recommended that the government should have an adaptation champion.

Although the UK has made a good start on adaptation, more needs to be done to encourage businesses and organisations to consider climate impacts as a matter of course in their business plans.

Local councils have unique access to, and are able to influence, organisations, businesses and the public in a number of ways. The coalition abolished the main incentive for local government to take action on adaptation (National Indicator 188). So, while many local councils made a strong start on adaptation, it is now harder for adaptation to be prioritised alongside the other work of local government. With greater support, councils could help more businesses and communities to take the first steps to adapting to climate impacts.

We have access to plenty of evidence and examples that can help us to begin the process of adaptation, and it is also important to avoid doing some things that will make adaptation difficult – such as building homes on land at risk of flooding.

Community Payback helps prevent flooding

Climate Vision


  • Flooding
  • Community action
  • Local government

Removing leaf litter from drains helps to alleviate part of a flooding problem, generating awareness of simple preventative measures, and producing a valuable resource by composting the collected leaf litter.


In November 2010, residents in Lostwithiel, Cornwall, were flooded as a result of blocked drains. Blocked drains often contribute to localised flooding, with leaf litter adding to the problem: clearing drains is expensive and labour intensive, and is the responsibility of the highway authorities.

The Pitt Review of the 2007 floods identified a need to establish clear responsibility and understanding of each local authority’s drainage and watercourse system to help to reduce future flooding.

Main players & partners

  • Luci Isaacson, Climate Vision
  • Cornwall Council’s highways authority
  • The Dorset, Devon & Cornwall Community Rehabilitation Company Limited (DDCCRC)
  • Environment Agency
  • Cory Environmental
  • Lostwithiel Town Council
  • St. Blazey Town Council
  • Truro City Council
  • Cornwall Waste Action
  • University of Hull
  • Cornwall Community Flood Forum
  • Sustainable Development Unit


Residents of Lostwithiel felt that felt leaf litter-blocked drains contributed to the effects of the 2010 flood and needed to be addressed. This led to Climate Vision initiating a pilot project to measure and remove leaf litter from drains throughout the autumn. Climate Vision also attended local flood meetings to speak to residents and understand the effects of heavy rainfall in local catchment areas.

The DDCCRC coordinated offenders on Community Payback to work on the drain clearing project, with certified training on working in the road provided by the highways authority. Cornwall Waste Action provided further training in turning leaf litter into soil conditioner, and provided the sacks for leaf collection.

The participating offenders were invited to contribute to the project method, and met householders to learn about the impacts of flooding and through discussions with Climate Vision learn about climate change and how it will increase the likelihood of such events. The team gained valuable experience and skills in alleviating environmental problems.

During the clearing sessions many residents personally thanked the community payback team for their work.


  • Lostwithiel escaped further flooding during the heavy rains of October 2011 while some nearby areas suffered.
  • Neighbouring areas are following this low carbon and sustainable approach to reducing flood risk.
  • Collected leaf litter has been successfully composted and given to local residents and councils to use as mulch.
  • The Project successfully ran up to January 2015. A toolkit and accompanying report are being compiled to enable others to adopt the model and will be available shortly.

Adaptation and a sense of place – are we making the most of local knowledge?

I grew up in the high mountain desert of northern New Mexico, and like most everyone else my age or older, the snowy, barefoot walk to school was uphill, both ways. Well, it wasn’t really uphill, and it certainly wasn’t barefoot, but from late October through January it was definitely snowy. I have many fond memories of Halloweens with my brothers, us knee-deep in snow, making snowmen using our carved pumpkins for the head.

I’ve not spent much time in New Mexico over the last 16 years, but the last year brought me home for a time and I’ve noticed changes from what I remember as a child. While these observations are just anecdotal (and not necessarily only tied to climate change), they have me thinking about my ability to notice the impacts of our changing climate in my own “backyard”. They also make me wonder if a changing relationship to our local environments may be affecting our ability to adapt.

Recently, my work has allowed me to connect with communities from around the world that are actively working to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Many of these communities are on the frontlines of climate change impacts – either due to their environmental context (small island states in the Caribbean; the rapidly changing Northern Boreal environments of Finland) or their economic fragility (remote villages in Nicaragua). And, while these regions are all distinct, with vastly different cultures and histories, one thing became immediately clear across all of these contexts: the importance of maintaining and supporting a strong relationship to environment and place is a critical aspect of climate adaptation.

Many of the climate adaptation projects we explored centered on natural resource management. However, the projects that stood out were not just scientifically innovative, but also had strong support from local communities because of their active connection with local cultural and environmental heritage. These projects built on the traditional practices that have tied people to place for hundreds, if not thousands of years in some cases. For example, while some community members in Nicaragua maintain traditional fishing and agricultural practices, they also preserve an intricate understanding of the subtle environmental changes and patterns that affect their daily lives (something that, in all honesty, I am oblivious to in my daily tinkering at my computer).

It is no surprise then, that these communities are ready and willing to take action when they see unprecedented and unpredictable changes limiting their livelihood and eroding culture heritage.  Even through something as basic as traditional foods, maintaining a culturally relevant connection to the environment is one of the key elements to implementing successful, community-led climate adaptation efforts. For example, in Barbuda Soldier Fungi (pronounced Foon-Ji), is a dish that links Barbudans to their African heritage and to the health of their local environment. Soldier Fungi is a seasonal dish that coincides with the annual migration of hermit crabs, which means seasonal disruptions or changes in migration patterns are noticed and tracked by local communities.

Halfway around the world, local fishermen in Finland were the first to identify a fish die-off because of their deep understanding of the local ecosystem (an event that was missed by formal institutional monitoring structures). In both these cases, local communities were the first to identify changes in their environment because of their linked cultural and environmental heritage.

However, in these and other communities, we heard that this local cultural and environmental knowledge is slowly “dying off” for a number of compounding economic, social, and environmental reasons. This dynamic makes the local management of natural resources increasingly challenging for communities whose cultural ties to place are stressed by environmental changes resulting from the impacts of climate change.

If the success of local climate adaptation efforts is dependent on the health of the cultural and environmental heritages of a community, more value needs to be placed on preserving local knowledge. Not only do we need to find the space to connect to our natural environments in ways that support traditional knowledge and the cultural histories that tie us to place, climate change practitioners need to ensure that the knowledge and insights that come from this connection are welcomed as equally valuable insights as part of an integrated climate change knowledge base.

If people can no longer understand or see the changes taking place in their backyard, how can they adapt to the impacts of these changes?


Progress and gaps in adaptation M&E: reflections from an international conference

What progress have we made on adaptation M&E and which gaps remain? Impressions from the 2nd International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development.

The Second International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development took place from 4–6 November 2014 in Washington DC, and brought together the climate change and evaluation community around the essential question of how to assess adaptation and mitigation responses to climate change. These are my impressions from the conference on progress made on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of adaptation.

In comparison to 2008, when the First Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development took place in Alexandria, Egypt, certainly a lot of progress has been made. Several guidebooks on how to monitor adaptation interventions have been published, including by UKCIP and GIZ, and a very useful overview report of the various methods and approaches has been compiled by UKCIP and the SEA Change Community of Practice (pdf, 6.6 MB).

In recent years, numerous countries have started developing national adaptation M&E systems. A comparative analysis of ten of them illustrates their diversity in terms of purpose, scope and methods being used. Whilst most of them employ some form of quantitative indicators, Norway has adopted a more informal, participatory and learning-oriented approach.

A similar development was noticeable at the Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience (PPCR). The PPCR M&E system is based on five core indicators that are measured in each partner country through scorecards. At the conference, a new initiative by the PPCR was announced called Evidence-based learning which aims to strengthen in-depth learning throughout the project cycle by supplementing formal indicators with tailored learning and evaluation approaches.

Whilst the search for the holy grail of standardised adaptation indicators may not be over yet, it was telling that none of the around 90 presentations suggested a global set of standardised indicators to measure progress on adaptation. On the contrary, there was a widely shared agreement that the context specific nature of adaptation does not allow meaningful measurement of its progress through a small set of global indicators. As argued on Climate Change TV, such an attempt would not fulfill the purpose of learning from adaptation practice.

The close interlinkage between adaptation and development was, of course, an important topic at the conference. Some argued that the additionality of adaptation in comparison to business as usual development interventions need to be strengthened. This might be connected to what I perceived as the largest gap on adaptation M&E: the lack of progress on how to measure adaptation results beyond simple outputs.

Indeed, the majority of indicators used by climate change funds as well as by national adaptation M&E systems are still limited to measuring outputs rather than outcomes. Whilst this is partly due to the challenges of measuring adaptation, more work on demonstrating the actual benefits of adaptation is needed. GIZ is piloting two approaches in this regard namely repeated vulnerability assessments and the quantification of avoided losses and health impacts.

Overall the Second International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development has really featured a rich collection of insights and ideas on measuring progress on adaptation and mitigation. If you are interested in learning more about, for example, the theory of no change, measuring resilience or the effectiveness of climate change funds, I encourage you to browse through the programme and explore the various sessions (click on “Presenters” to see the talks and abstracts of each session).

The conference was supported by a group of international organisations, bilateral aid agencies, research institutes and think tanks and hosted by the Climate Eval Community of Practice. On behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), GIZ has co-organised and co-sponsored the conference through the project “Effective Adaptation Finance (M&E Adapt)”.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GIZ or BMZ.

Climate change – are we there yet?

Reflections on Climate Week NYC, 2014, from Rohan Hamden.

Climate Week NYC 2014, image courtesy of Rohan Hamden

Climate Week NYC is a high profile event dealing with global climate reform. For the first time since 2009 the event coincided with a UN Summit on Climate Change where leaders were set to announce their commitment to a global agreement by 2015. Have we finally arrived? Is humanity safe from the perils of our own making, or do we will still face an insurmountable mountain with no clear way to the summit? As with any long trip where the children are in the back constantly asking “are we there yet?” Well, the answer is pretty much the same, “nearly kids, nearly”.

But in reality, how “nearly there” are we? Has the stage been set for a grand agreement at the UNFCCC COP in Paris, 2015? Or instead, will we again have to lift our gaze further and look to 2016 and beyond.

The week started well with the People’s Climate March. The orderly procession of over 400,000 citizens bussed from all over the country started in Central Park and made its way across the city. By any standards, this was an enormous crowd, even in a city like New York. People are clearly starting to weary of the slow pace of negotiations and are rising up to make their voices heard.

As you have already heard in the media, the UN Summit itself was a bit below expectations. Surprisingly, the talk after the event did not dwell on the absence of China’s leader. It is clear that their domestic policy is targeted towards fixing the problem.

Instead people were lamenting the poor showing of President Obama. While he gave a stirring speech during the Summit itself, he chose not to attend a key dinner afterwards where deals were being thrashed out. Instead he was uptown at a Democratic Party function. At least he spoke openly about the limitations of his aggressive Congress. It is by no means clear that the US will be able to deliver what is necessary for COP 21 in Paris.

In contrast to governments, the rallying cry from the corporate sector was loud and clear. They want action and they want it now. The roll call of global chief executives who took time to come to New York was truly impressive and included many of the largest companies in the world. The day when I was sitting in the audience listening to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, Paul Agnefjall CEO of IKEA, and Sir Richard Branson head of Virgin Group all speaking out for binding targets will stay with me for a long time.

A large global contingent of 3 and 4 star general and admirals even descended on the Summit. Their message was that climate change represents a far greater threat to the security of any nation than terrorism or a pandemic. Bold words from bold and impressive people.

The Rising Seas Summit held in the latter part of Climate Week demonstrated that climate change adaptation planning and practice is becoming quite deep and sophisticated. There was an outstanding array of case studies in adaptation planning, risk mitigation and community engagement. While the activity is occurring in isolated pockets around the nation, there is certainly a good knowledge base and network of practitioners who can lead the change as communities continue to wake up to the challenges.

Despite this growth and improvement in the adaptation sector, it will perhaps not be nearly enough if we don’t reach some sort of agreement soon to cut our emissions. We still face enormous changes to our climate, and it is by no means certain that an effective agreement to mitigate the worst effects of this will be established in 2015.

I do have more hope for the future than I have ever had before. The task before us remains enormous, but on balance I think we can finally be truthful when we say “yes kids, we’re nearly there”.

It’s all about interdependency…

This week’s launch of the assessment of England’s progress on adaptation to climate change is very welcome, and focuses on a number of topics close to UKCIP and our stakeholders.

It’s good news that the ‘comprehensive’ work of the energy sector to make power supplies more resilient in the face of extreme weather is highlighted as a positive achievement. Other sectors, though, may feel that their ‘needs improvement’ assessment is a little harsh.

I hope that the Adaptation Sub-Committee’s report will give new urgency to consideration of the tightly-knit interdependencies that characterise our critical national infrastructure. Where would energy generation be without a water supply? How could transport systems function without reliable data and telecoms services? What’s the impact on staff availability when severe weather causes road and rail disruption ?

I firmly believe that only by looking across our infrastructure provision to see the links between them, and the vital services they provide, can we begin to see where vulnerabilities in one area might endanger others. There will also be opportunities to explore. By sharing information and working together we can build a more robust infrastructure that provides a host of services our communities depend upon.

Through UKCIP’s work as home to the Adaptation and Resilience in the Context of Change (ARCC) network, we are facilitating an infrastructure dialogue. This has brought together representatives from infrastructure research, policy and practice to try to nurture progress in this tricky realm of understanding and take action to tackle the challenges arising from infrastructure interdependencies.

There is still a long way to go, but perhaps in next year’s progress report, the Adaptation Sub-Committee may feel that infrastructure providers have done enough to earn a ‘good’ rating.

Anytown – a place near you with a surprisingly fragile infrastructure

Anytown is a place close to you. It has schools, hospitals, a railway station, municipal headquarters and its own radio station. If you like, it can have a TV station, and perhaps a university too.

You’ll have worked out by now, of course, that Anytown is a scenario. It’s used to explore the responses and interdependencies that might emerge with the failure of one or more infrastructure service.

Anytown is an initiative from the London Resilience team and has focused on 4 workshops; two last year, two this year. Anytown brings together representatives from infrastructure (e.g. telecoms providers, transport organisations), emergency services (e.g. A&E departments, fire and rescue service) and relevant others such as policy-makers and academics.

I’ve now attended two Anytown meetings, and while they focus on the ‘disaster response’ end of adaptation, they still provide a useful opportunity to investigate the ripple effect of infrastructure failure. At the most recent meeting, working in groups we considered the impacts of a breakdown of telecoms/data, with a separate session on gas supply failure.

It’s easy to see that infrastructure is very interdependent, with services usually requiring a secure energy supply, sometimes the provision of water and very often reliant on remote sensors and control systems.

But one of the big lessons I’ve taken from the Anytown exercise is that it’s important to look beyond the utilities. As soon as a failure starts to lead to, for example, school closures, then the knock on effects are immense, as parents start to take time off to look after their young children. Similarly, transport disruption means that staff aren’t able to get to their workplaces, and for some organisations that’s a real problem: you can’t change a dressing remotely!

The recent Anytown meeting also offered a more positive vision. We heard from Prof John Preston, Dr Charlotte Chadderton and Kaori Kitagawa from the University of East London who are looking at the community response to critical infrastructure failure. The experiences of people who lived through the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand and the tsunami in Japan, both in 2011, suggests that a the public has a tremendous ability to self-organise and to respond flexibly to the immediate loss of infrastructure. Their research suggests that populations mobilise and share through a variety of communications to identify useful information, direct volunteers and modify behaviour.

Anytown is a great way to think about responses to infrastructure crises, and this can and should help academics, policy makers and practitioners to investigate ways to prepare for and minimise a range of risks.

Making vulnerable voices heard in flood protection decisions

If you talk to anyone who has been affected by a flood, they would no doubt have a long list of questions and complaints about flood defences, prevention and the grim process of cleaning up. Giving vulnerable or disadvantaged people the opportunity to have their say too, and finding an inclusive way to capture their comments is a challenge. Meanwhile, communities deal with the immediate problems, working together and supporting each other. The community strength and togetherness generated by a crisis is very valuable, but can it also be harnessed for long-term planning for future events?

We could learn from the Dutch method of involving communities in decisions about dealing with coastal flooding. These ‘guided conversations’, where everyone listens as much as they talk, gives those affected a ‘voice’ and the opportunity for vulnerable sections of society to get involved. In the UK, we use the public consultation process to discuss planning decisions and design policy. We also have Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) – multi-agency partnerships made up of local representatives from the emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, the Environment Agency and others. They plan and prepare for localised incidents and catastrophic emergencies, working to identify potential risks and produce emergency plans, but they are not dedicated to dealing with flooding. Their remit is to respond to, rather than prevent, such emergencies.

This difference in approach is important: a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Climate change and social justice: An evidence review –  found evidence that vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the UK are less able to be involved in designing and implementing flood policy decisions. Whose voice is heard and responded to matters, particularly when there are winners and losers as a result of a decision.

The report suggests that the design and consultation phase of a project should involve discussions with community organisations, schools, churches and marginalised or vulnerable groups rather than the usual public hearings.

Community-level communication, whether that be a forum where people can share experiences and learn from and support each other, or local schemes to disseminate flood warnings are vital to protect disadvantaged households. Schemes that show tangible local benefits are also more likely to encourage communities to take part.

We need a radical change in the way that communities are involved in decision-making for policy, moving away from public consultation to one that recognises community strengths and captures the voices of the vulnerable in a more collaborative planning process.

We also need to move beyond emergency response and build institutions and infrastructure to create enduring resilience across all social groups. This means engaging all parts of society when there is not a flood (a tough challenge) and improving communication between agencies and at-risk communities. It requires clearer definitions of roles, including supporting communities to help themselves. The legacy of the 2014 floods must be more resilient, cohesive communities and agencies who understand local concerns and are prepared for the next deluge.

Knowledge exchange will help build the case for adaptation

Climate change adaptation is increasingly as much about changes to behaviour as it is about technological responses such as building flood defences or planting drought-resistent crops. We need a stronger integration of our knowledge about adaptation solutions that includes our knowledge of how individuals and communities embrace new systems, technologies and social norms.

UKCIP strongly believes that its continuing focus on knowledge exchange will provide a route forward. Knowledge exchange works best by bringing together researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to share their knowledge and experiences, and to develop innovative and well-informed ways to deliver services and outcomes in world (and a climate) that is changing.

In a shared adaptation space, participants can all bring their knowledge to bear on a common problem, and find benefits in understanding each others’ constraints and perspectives.

It’s also an opportunity to build consensus around the need for adaptation, at a time when the ‘age of austerity’ remains the dominant mantra. Issues associated with climate change have become less of a public priority in recent years, and adaptation – so often lost in the call for mitigation – is now often at the margins of policy and action. It sometimes seems as if only flood risk (understandably headline-grabbing) remains a serious issue for discussion.

UKCIP’s work is helping to revise the case for adaptation, and we believe that by engaging research, policy and practice, together we can develop a richer understanding of the need for, and the opportunities and constraints that surround our adaptation choices. We want to extend the adaptation vocabulary beyond ‘resilience’ to find positive approaches consistent with the challenges we face. Adaptation research should incorporate the creativity to embrace and experiment with well-informed and innovative ideas that can also get public support and will provide good adaptation solutions for our communities.

Any fool can know…

Albert Einstein once wrote, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” So when it comes to exchanging knowledge about climate change adaptation, how much are we knowing and how much are we understanding? Well, I will put my hand up and admit I am one of the fools that Einstein speaks of, but fool aspiring to understand!

Wicked problems such as climate change adaptation are by their very nature problematic, and so how we share knowledge that can lead to understanding that in turns leads to constructive action is also problematic where there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Whilst we would not claim to have all the answers to good knowledge exchange, the broad experience that UKCIP has in the field has given us a certain awareness of some of the principles of good practice. Anyone who has an understanding of what it means to be a good teacher will recognise many of these principles.

No one can ever know everything about adaptation, yet many people try to claim they do. In UKCIP’s experience, knowing that we have a good awareness of the concepts and that other people have the expertise is the starting point of good knowledge exchange. After all, no one knows carrot farming like a carrot farmer. Perhaps though, there are people out there who could help the carrot farmer with information on future weather and climate, or how infrastructure changes could have an impact on their business. So even though you may be an expert in your field, excuse the pun, there are always others who can help. This then brings us to the creation of networks of people, sharing knowledge of a problem. But knowledge as we know does not mean understanding so how does this transformation happen?

Sustained dialogue within these networks is critical, though what is just as critical is the opportunity to reflect on the knowledge being shared and to help each other make the links that can be applied to an individual context. As an organisation’s understanding develops they will need new members of the network to bring in new ideas that necessitates an organic, fluid movement of people and ideas within the network. The expert you needed at the start is not always going to be the expert you need throughout.

The practicalities of how we have gone about facilitating the creation of these dynamic networks will be the work of future blogs. But for now let us recognise that being a fool is not going to help any organisation adapt to a changing climate, but understanding could.