26Sep2013

Living with Climate Change

Sumit Vij

This blog series is a part of assorted writings for a two-year research project titled “Living with Climate Change” (LCC) funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Canada. Following is the first blog in the series. It briefly outlines the research project, the challenges in conceptualizing the research study and the literature gaps in the discourse of climate change. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change in the fourth assessment report suggests that the climate system of our planet when compared with the pre-industrial era has changed at both global and regional levels. Recognizing these scientific facts, countries often attempt for two potential responses, ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’. Mitigation involves reducing the magnitude of climate change itself while adaptation attempts to limit our vulnerability to climate change impacts through various development strategies. Adaptation is gaining significance in climate change academia as it can operate like a policy option such as the National Action Plans on Climate Change in India. Moreover, it works as a complementary response strategy to ‘mitigation’. Adaptation studies are also contributing to characterization of natural and socio-economic attributes of a particular locale in distinct development contexts such as rural, coastal, tribal and urban.

The LCC project envisages understanding the perception of rural and tribal communities regarding the changing climate and their adaptation strategies. The research study currently in the design stage will be conducted in different countries with different geological features such as Nepal (Himalayan belt), India (semi-arid and coastal belts) and New Brunswick, Canada (coastal region). Semi-arid areas in India under consideration include Mewat (Haryana) and Bundelkhand (13 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh). Each area has its own distinct climate, economy and culture. Hence, these locations are bound to use different climate change adaptation strategies. The climatic conditions in these locations may illustrate the characteristics of climate variability in the form of extreme patterns in rainfall, occurrence of drought events or any extreme climate event that affects local communities. For example, Bundelkhand had 12 drought years during the 19th and 20th centuries i.e. on an average – once in 16 years. However with the changing climate, the frequency of drought has increased. In the period from 1968-1992, drought frequency has increased from one – three in 16 years.

The uniqueness of the LCC project lies in the feature of ‘knowledge mobilization’ and the involvement of various stakeholders to augment the trust between Global North and Global South. The researchers based at universities in Canada and NGOs in India and Nepal plan to share research outcomes (mobilize knowledge) through various types of writings, photographs and videos. Involvement of stakeholders will be through participation of graduate students, community leaders and local NGO representatives in all the chosen site locations. The research study has the potential to prompt coordination of regional efforts to share successful adaptation strategies and to promote integration of local, regional and global actions and policies relating to climate change.

Challenges in Climate Change Research
Site selection is a very vital step in social science research as it is imperative for grounding a theory or for studying a grounded theory in a definite context. Failure to provide rationale for selection of fieldwork sites is a major gap in the literature of climate change research. Moreover, research studies are not able to comprehend the empirical differentiation in the research between the impacts of biophysical factors (such as changes in temperature, rainfall and precipitation), social (pull and push factors of migration), institutional (weak panchayats/ village councils) and policy concerns (such as agriculture policy concerns on subsidies). LCC research study methodology would make necessary efforts to capture these linkages between the biophysical, social, institutional and policy concerns.

Further literature suggests that communities are adaptive and in the past they have adapted to extreme environmental situations. In studies of the socio-economic consequences of climate change; research blends the social, political and institutional factors with the biophysical factors that influence the adaptation strategies of the communities. This unclear linkage between the social, political and institutional factors with the biophysical factors is a research gap. Thus, with the realization of this concern, many social scientists have started using terms like ‘climate variability’ or ‘climate induced impacts’ instead of the much debated term, ‘climate change’. Social scientists use the term frequently to explain the changing socio-economic patterns; however it is very difficult to prove climate change as a phenomenon at the local village level. The LCC study would make an attempt to understand the phenomenon of climate change at the local level using perceptions and community understanding on adaptation and resilience.

There are specific groups within the community that are more vulnerable to risks posed by climate change. Rural women in India, for example are disproportionately affected by climate variability. They are more likely to be marginal in terms of participation in decision-making for defining roles and responsibility, and equity in terms of cost and benefits. A very relevant example is the provision of drinking water for rural households in semi-arid areas. Along with this responsibility of fetching water, women are also involved in primary caring of their family members. With increase in climate variabilities, the adverse impact on the health and well being of families could also increase. This could increase women’s caring responsibilities. These examples reflect the theoretical discourse of ‘feminist environmentalism’, which talks about women being affected more due to the changing climate. Research studies in climate change keeps these women under unitary category. These studies fail to bring understanding on the class, caste and ethnicity among women and neglect the interrelated dominance on resources affected by climate change. It would be an interesting hypothesis for LCC study to explore this discourse. It is essential to emphasize on the social discourse such as gender in the study where climate change induced biophysical factors influence the socio-economic consequences.

Largely it is the responsibility of the social scientists researching in the space of climate change adaptation to explore the nature of risks and vulnerabilities that the local communities and specific groups are exposed to. With the above mentioned different challenging discourses of community based climate change research, the fundamental feature to be preserved is that the LCC research project should be able to weave together the entire social constructed meanings of climate change impacts and adaptation strategies along with the biophysical patterns of climate change.