Levels and Types of Adaptation

Several typologies of adaptation to natural hazards, climate change and variability have been developed. (Burton et al., 1993; Smit et al., 2000; Smit and Pilifosova, 2001). Adaptation in a narrow sense refers only to those measures that are taken at the farm level. But in fact adaptation is a much wider concept involving choices at national and international levels as well as local. Adaptation involves more than measures, it is also a matter for national agricultural and development policy.

Most of the literature on climate change and agriculture deals with adaptation at the local level. Many lists have been published showing the wide range of adaptation options theoretically available. Numerous examples may be found in the first national communications submitted by developing country governments under the UNFCCC. Typically these include changes in seasonality of production; dates of sowing; choice of crop varieties or species; development of new varieties including GMOs; improved water supply and irrigation systems including efficiency in use; tillage practices; other inputs and management adjustments and improved short-term weather and seasonal climate forecasting. As noted above efforts are now being made to strengthen the role of national governments in facilitating the dissemination and adoption of technical adaptation at the farm level. This is usually presented as the need to incorporate climate change considerations into farm management. Unless this can be linked to short-term considerations and climate variability and extremes it seems to generate little response in farming communities. Under the UNFCCC very little attention has been given so far to technical adaptation. The debate has centered on the need for technology transfer but adaptation technology has been virtually ignored in the rush to explore tech-transfer for greenhouse gas emission reductions. There is, of course, a great deal of international attention to such agricultural issues as the protection and use of genetic resources, and the spread of GMOs, but so far the climate dimension has figured little in these issues.

There is also a concern in the development assistance agencies to foster the incorporation of climate adaptation into national economic development policy and associated development assistance (Burton and van Aalst, 1999). A new generation of impact and adaptation studies is now beginning to address this need, but the research is only now getting started. A key question here is the danger that agricultural policies may serve to increase vulnerability. National agricultural policy is developed in the context of local risks, needs, and capacities, as well as international markets, tariffs, subsidies and trade agreements. It is often claimed that the international context imposes a straightjacket on national policies and choices, and that policies are insufficiently responsive to local needs. Stakeholder participation in policy development is frequently recommended as a measure that can help to reduce the distance between national policy processes and the farm and community level.

At the same time it is acknowledged that in both developed and developing countries agricultural policies are among the most difficult to change. That farming is so often regarded as a "way of life" and not just a matter of efficient production, helps to strengthen conservatism and widespread resistance to change. This conservatism, strongly advocated by a significant proportion of the farmers themselves, is asserted to be essential for the maintenance of stable rural communities and the quality of food produced. Vocal resistance to change helps to keep farm subsidies high in developed countries and does not facilitate positive attitudes to innovation and adaptation. Confident forecasts about adaptation in agriculture have often neglected this situation and have assumed that adaptation will occur up to, or close to, the limits of technical feasibility.

The fact that agriculture can be described on one hand as highly adaptable and resilient, and on the other as resistant to change, is related to the diffusion and success of technical innovations at the farm level. Successful adaptation over decades and centuries at this level goes a long way towards explaining the confidence now being expressed in the ability of agriculture to cope with the potential impacts of climate change. On the other hand there are concerns that improvements in the efficiency of agricultural production are having serious environmental and social consequences. It is paradoxical that while apparently advocating trade liberalization, and exportled development, the developed countries effectively discourage modernization and adaptation in tropical agriculture by their own farm subsidies. Successful adaptation to climate change in developing countries will depend upon more than assistance in the adoption of adaptation measures. It will require a broader and more consistent global approach that facilitates policy change in developed as well as developing countries.

Despite such obstacles the record so far seems to suggest that the prospects for agriculture in the face of climate change are good at the global level, but that severe local disruptions and inequalities are possible, even likely. This diagnosis suggests the need to pay more attention to national policy and global negotiations in order to alleviate inequalities between and within nations. The very success of technical adaptation at the local level in some places is creating problems that need to be addressed by national governments acting in their own areas of jurisdiction, and by international agreements directed towards the stability of the global system. To date adaptation has been treated largely as a matter of measures to be adopted at the local level. There is also a global dimension to adaptation which we neglect at some risk. From the perspective of climate change and development the place where local and global converge is at the level of national policy.

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