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World Adaptation Science Programme - Policy Brief #2: Transboundary climate risk and adaptation

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Key messages

  • Adaptation science should support the policy community to adopt a transboundary lens to better manage the systemic nature of climate risk.

  • Adaptation is not (just) local or national – it can also be regional or global, it requires scientific knowledge and cooperation at all scales, and should be recognized as delivering, in some cases, global public goods.

  • Adaptation is not necessarily benign – it can redistribute vulnerability and create or magnify risk for others, especially across borders.

  • Adapting to transboundary climate risk falls between the remits of government departments and national jurisdictions and ends up being “no-one’s job” – analysis is needed to support solutions at various scales.

Introduction

When a global food price crisis occurred in 2007-8, many countries experienced severe social and political unrest. Analysts offered explanations of the causes, which were myriad, including not just poor harvests linked to unusual weather, but also the collateral effects of response measures taken by countries to insulate their domestic markets from early price spikes (such as export bans and commodity hoarding). These initial “adaptations” exacerbated the risk for many low-income import-dependent countries, and ultimately turned a series of local impacts into a systemic crisis.

Climate scientists predict more severe and frequent harvest failures in many of the main food-exporting countries in the coming decades as a result of climate change. Against the backdrop of this increasing risk baseline, two lessons from 2007-8 can be drawn: (1) that how interdependent countries respond to climate impacts and anticipated risks can be as important as the initial impacts themselves in determining levels of damage and disruption; and (2) climate impacts can affect other systems far away from their initial source.

The extent and rate of the cascading consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 serve as a reminder of how deeply connected the world has become. How will climate change impact this globalized, hyper-connected world? Adaptation scientists, practitioners and funders need to consider how their work can help to prevent or manage transboundary climate risks.