Is it Adaptation or Development?

Revisiting the Continuum 10 years later

"Is it adaptation or is it development?"

The question has bedeviled the adaptation policy community for well over a decade.

Despite a more sophisticated understanding of adaptation, greater political recognition of its importance in responding to the climate crisis and, crucially, more resources than ever for its implementation, funders and practitioners continue to ask fundamental questions about what constitutes adaptation and how to distinguish it from other non-adaptive activities.

Indeed, this is the question that spurred us to develop “the adaptation continuum” back in 2007, when we provided a framework that proposed a range of what adaptation can look like. On the left hand side of the continuum lay “business-as-usual” development activities focused on addressing the roots of vulnerability. On the right were discernably “business unusual” activities, which are explicitly about addressing the impacts of climate change.

The Adaptation Continuum

The aim of the continuum was to portray the different—and sometimes complex—facets of adaptation so that people weren’t always looking for the new and additional. We felt that a continuum was a useful way to convey that, in between adaptation’s two extremes, there lies a broad range of efforts that differ in the degree to which they emphasize addressing vulnerability versus addressing climate change impacts. We tried to capture the richness of adaptation, highlighting its fundamental links to poverty reduction, institutional strengthening, risk management and, in some contexts, transformation.

Our point was that trying to draw sharp distinctions between “adaptation” and “development” was not necessarily helpful or reflective of what was a reality on the ground. Investments in what seemed like “traditional development” could be just as important—in some cases, more important—than investments in activities that appeared to focus explicitly on addressing climate impacts. Strict additionality could actually lead to potentially bad investments, as they risked overlooking what was making communities, ecosystems and economies vulnerable to climate change in the first place. What’s more, it was the evidence, assumptions and planning that lay behind the adaptation activity that was important, not necessarily how it appeared in its execution.

As we observed in 2007:

Rarely do adaptation efforts entail activities not found in the development toolbox. The uniquely adaptive elements of most efforts are those involved in defining problems, selecting strategies, and setting priorities – not in implementing solutions.

This conclusion did not lend itself to easy formulas or generic criteria for discerning differences between adaptation and development. Nevertheless, the continuum and the conclusions therein became useful framing devices that supported many conversations on adaptation and resilience.

Reflections Since 2007

After what felt like a period of relative indifference around the question of “is it adaptation or development?” it seems to have re-emerged quite prominently in recent key policy deliberations.

Five years ago, people seemed to have accepted the fact that the question would not be answered in an easy or satisfying manner and had decided to move ahead with a pragmatic “learning by doing” approach. But now the question is asked with greater urgency than we have ever observed.

This is undoubtedly linked to the fact that more resources are on the table to support adaptation; at the time we wrote about the continuum in 2007, the Adaptation Fund was not yet operational, and it would be another three years before the Green Climate Fund would be established. Now both are central to the adaptation finance landscape. And with the addition of these resources, specifically meant for adaptation, we seem to boomerang back to a familiar question: how can we be sure the resources are in fact going towards their aim?

This revival has prompted us to look back at what we were trying to convey in 2007 through the continuum, and reflect on what we have learned over the last 10 years about the relationship between adaptation and development.

1. “Adaptation or development” is not an either-or choice.

Many people have looked to our continuum to try to distinguish between adaptation and development, but a continuum by its nature has little to offer such an exercise. Rather, the continuum recognizes their inherent overlap and makes it clear that virtually anything one might do with adaptation or development in mind could, in principle, contribute to the other, to greater or lesser degrees. To really determine whether an activity “counts” as climate change adaptation requires more than an abstract framework such as the one we created. In our framework, everything on the continuum could potentially contribute to adaptation, and everything could potentially contribute to development. It requires an understanding of what the activity can achieve in a particular climate risk context.

2. Understanding the climate risk context is the crux of adaptation.

In 2007, debates raged about the additionality of climate change activities relative to a baseline of “business-as-usual” development. These debates were challenging enough to resolve for climate change mitigation; when it came to adaptation, we saw them skewing work toward highly technical “impacts-focused” activities, away from the vulnerability reduction interventions that can be highly effective in many contexts.

Our work helped make the case for investment in these activities on the vulnerability-focused side of the continuum, an argument that has since been supported by a growing body of evidence about the factors that help people thrive in the face of volatility and shocks. However, it is important to distinguish between recognizing the adaptation function of many development activities and simply trusting that activities on the left side of the continuum on their own will convey the right benefits for people to thrive in a changing climate.

Understanding what counts as climate change adaptation requires an understanding of what an activity can achieve in its climate risk context. This in itself requires looking at a range of factors—from climate change trends to any number of cultural, political, socioeconomic and environmental factors.

The past 10 years witnessed a growing number, and growing sophistication, of methods for vulnerability and risk assessment that examine these factors. We also have seen the development of powerful new tools for dealing with uncertainty in the climate or other risk factors, including participatory scenario development, robust decision making and adaptive design.

With an assessment of the climate risk context in hand, adaptation becomes a matter of identifying activities and outcomes that could plausibly reduce risk. But without some understanding of the climate change component of climate risk—even if it is simply recognizing pervasive uncertainty—there is no basis for judging the adaptation function of an activity.

For this reason, we look back on our adaptation continuum and wonder why we located the use of climate information on the right hand side of the continuum. We noted in 2007 that “very little, if any, attention to the specifics of climate change is paid” during interventions at the left side of the continuum. While this may have been true for the adaptation activities we reviewed at the time, it shouldn’t be the case if we accept the full spectrum of activities that may constitute adaptation. With hindsight, we see that climate information—even if it is uncertain or rudimentary—provides the basis for understanding the adaptation function of activities all across the continuum.

3. We need to keep the full spectrum of adaptation options on the table.

If it’s the relevance of an activity to its climate risk context that defines adaptation, then the distinction between adaptation and development ceases to be a definitional question. It instead becomes an operational process of conducting a vulnerability and risk assessment, identifying options, evaluating options in light of climate risk (and other criteria), then selecting some options for implementation. Sound familiar? Adaptation practitioners will know these as the major steps of a typical “adaptation cycle,” which resembles the standard policy cycle. The value of the adaptation continuum in this process, as we see it, plays out mainly in identifying options.

The categories presented on the continuum serve as a reminder that some of the most appropriate and effective adaptation options may entail water harvesting, livelihood diversification, women’s empowerment, government accountability or other more “traditional development” activities.

4. Adaptation often requires simultaneous work at multiple points on the continuum.

The continuum was never intended to serve as a sequential depiction of adaptation, where the categories represented a series of stages over time and the aim was to arrive at highly impact-targeted climate change activities. In fact, the hope was to avoid having to undertake directly impact-focused work by reducing vulnerability with more development-targeted work.

But we noted at the time that the different categories augmented one another and that there were “many examples where adaptation initiatives incorporate elements of two or three of these approaches.” Today, coastal Alaska and South Asia’s Sundarbans both provide stark examples. Vulnerability-focused activities alone are unlikely to be climate-adaptive for long in these places, given rates of sea-level rise and coastal erosion. Instead, the most promising climate-adaptive initiatives in these locations integrate activities located at multiple points along the continuum, so that strengths built through vulnerability-focused work enable success with “impacts-focused” activities and vice-versa.

5. Long-term success means abandoning the “adaptation versus development” function of the continuum.

Any conceptual framework has its limitations. One of the major ones facing our 2007 adaptation continuum was the mainstreaming of adaptation into development, which we would argue is the only way adaptation will actually succeed over the longer term.

We had flagged at the time that mainstreaming would pose challenges to those wanting to label funding flows as either “adaptation” or “development,” since the two would effectively fold into one another. As such, we argued, strict definitions and calculations of additionally in adaptation would undermine support for effective work, and therefore funders need to adopt broader definitions of adaptation.

Looking back, we likely didn’t emphasize this point strongly enough. And we didn’t articulate how mainstreaming—which is to say, understanding and addressing the climate change context as standard development practice—could still yield activities that could fall across the entire continuum.

This set up the continuum to be (mis)used as a tool for pitting adaptation against development, and this was never the intent. Today, there is no question in our minds that fully integrating adaptation into development is among the most transformational processes we could wish for in the climate change space.

Using the Continuum Today:
The Question of Finance for Adaptation

Since its publication in 2007, we have seen the continuum used in various ways, from a tool to introduce new audiences to the concepts and practices of adaptation to framing discussions around adaptation finance. It is the latter that, in many ways, keeps the continuum alive.

If we accept the central premise that all activities that fall along the continuum—whether vulnerability- or impact-focused—can count as adaptation, and that it is the relationship of that activity to the climate change context that makes it so, then we have a basis for helping funders understand if and how they are supporting adaptation.

This relationship between the activity and the context—the adaptation logic or justification—must be clearly articulated by those seeking funding and other forms of support. The best investment in adaptation in a particular context may be increasing women’s literacy or raising a causeway by 40 centimeters. It doesn’t matter that the former looks like business-as-usual development or that the latter is clearly about dealing with rising sea levels—it is the rationale for why these will help manage climate risk that matters.

As such, funders should distinguish adaptation from “business-as-usual” development by developing a clear set of criteria for what constitutes an acceptable adaptation reasoning for projects they fund. These criteria could include elements such as: effective use of an appropriate vulnerability/risk assessment; inclusion of key stakeholders in initiative planning; articulation of any assumptions used about the future of the climate; hypotheses about the function of activities in that future; and identification of future milestones or benchmarks that would indicate the validity of the reasoning or be used to adjust it. The use of such a process will enable the adaptation effectiveness of activities across the entire continuum to be evaluated fairly as part of the funding process and will allow “development-focused” activities to be recognized as legitimate adaptation options. Once this happens, the climate community can feel confident that adaptation investments will contribute to the transformations we all wish to see.

Anne Hammill is Director of the Resilience Program at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which hosts secretariat for the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) Global Network.

Heather McGray is Director of the Climate Justice Resilience Fund, and previously served as the Director of the Climate Resilience Practice at the World Resources Institute.