Adapting to or Just Muddling Through Climate Change?

Ever since the devastating cyclone Alia hit Bangladesh in 2009, Masum Sheikh has been on a journey to find a way back to resilience. The cyclone’s tidal wave destroyed his fishpond and made the soil in his small fields too salty for cultivation. After the 2009 storm, he moved his family to Chittagong where he started to sell sugar cane juice as his family worked stitching garments for export. But he missed his home and moved back to Khulna in 2014. There, he took whatever work he could find, earning the money to finally return to his village in 2020 — just in time for cyclone Amphan.  

Although Amphan was less powerful than Alia, it was still destructive enough to flood the ponds Masum had carefully restored. Fortunately, he was able to secure loans from a microfinance institution, ASA, to restore his ponds and diversify his revenue sources by selling sugar cane juice again. 

Figure 1: Timeline of Masum Sheikh's movements and livelihood changes

In an effort to strengthen his resilience, Masum diversified his income streams and migrated temporarily. These are both strategies that are often used as a means of muddling through a climate shock. They are reflected across the globe, with young men in particular moving to earn additional income, part of which they send back to their families. 

How vulnerable populations adapt to climate events is a complex question, and the answers are sometimes surprising. Ideally, it will involve a combination of building strategies for resilience (the ability of individuals and households to reduce and mitigate risks, as well as to cope with and recover from shocks) and for climate adaptation (the process of adjustment to climate impacts to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities).

The first blog in our series explored how rural households in Nigeria used financial services to cope with climate shocks. Among the conclusions was that short-term coping is very different from longer-term adaptation, as consecutive shocks erode assets that people rely on for their resilience. In our second blog, we therefore consider the complexities of locally-led adaptation, and what distinguishes long-term adaptation strategies from simply muddling through. 

Perceptions and priorities matter  

How people perceive the impacts of climate change affects how they respond to them, and their priorities affect decisions on the resources and tools they use. While most farmers recognize that weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme, few associate them with climate change. In our research in Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria, many people we spoke to saw climate events as temporary weather extremes and part of a natural cycle, even as they noted that the events were becoming more frequent, intense, and difficult to manage. It is difficult to disentangle the weather events that have always affected humans, particularly vulnerable communities living in more exposed environments, from the growing impacts of climate change. This can significantly shape the adaptation responses that they are willing to consider.    

Assets matter too 

People’s ability to adapt is also shaped by the physical, financial, environmental, social, and human capital they possess. In many vulnerable communities, social capital has been the mainstay of resilience and adaptation strategies. The interplay between all five forms of capital is key to households’ resilience and ability to adapt.  

However, climate change may also erode these forms of capital. We saw this in our work in Nigeria, where we analyzed people’s perceptions of their changing capital over time (see the image below). 

Figure 2: Nigeria respondents' perceptions of their changing capital over time

Muddling through is not adapting  

Our research showed that many capital-poor households are just muddling through climate events rather than strategically adapting to long-term climate change in ways that enhance their resilience. In Bangladesh, for example, new drought, flood, and saline-resistant crops are now commonplace, along with the ever-increasing application of fertilizer and pesticides to maintain yields. We also saw people building their houses, latrines, and vegetable plots on raised plinths to try to keep them above the encroaching salty waters. We met people like Masum who were forced to migrate in search of basic livelihood opportunities. Muddling through often means having to adopt these kinds of short-term fixes which can result in a rapid return to poverty. 

Long-term adaptation needs support from governments and development partners  

In contrast to muddling through, effective climate adaptation is typically complex and often requires an understanding of the evolving climate trends, information about resilience strategies, access to markets and technologies, a broad asset base, and large-scale financing. A carefully planned adaptation effort by governments and their development partners is often foundational for this, both directly and by shaping the wider context within which individuals and communities respond to climate change. The autonomous adaptation that low-income households undertake themselves is often a reactive, intuitive, iterative response that can manifest as muddling through. It is therefore essential for governments and development partners to increase the access of affected communities to information and technologies to consider and choose appropriate adaptation responses, as well as to the financial services they need to implement them. The growing impetus behind “locally-led adaptation” reflects the need for both planned and autonomous adaptation strategies to be pursued simultaneously.  

All adaptation strategies risk maladaptation  

Maladaptation is the taking of actions or strategies that may inadvertently increase vulnerability to climate change or undermine the long-term sustainability of a livelihood. Planned adaptation strategies (which are typically designed via extensive research) might be expected to minimize maladaptive outcomes, but this is not always the case, as top-down strategies often overlook complex local conditions and realities. Furthermore, there can be tradeoffs and knock-on effects: adaptation strategies that make sense from one perspective or are beneficial for one group could at the same time have negative consequences for other groups and thus constitute maladaptation.  

Muddling through and autonomous adaptation strategies might be expected to have much higher chances of maladaptive outcomes, because they are more reactive, rapid, and typically focused on alleviating short-term challenges. However, two factors mitigate this risk. Firstly, household-specific actions are less likely to have wide-ranging systemic impacts. Secondly, they typically apply a depth of local knowledge and lived experience that few planned adaptation projects draw from. 

Despite significant progress on financial inclusion over the last decade, the range of services that poor and rural households have access to remains limited, creating a significant barrier to climate adaptation. 

Financial access shapes climate adaptation  

Even if people have the information and technologies to choose appropriate adaptation strategies, their access to financial services will limit which strategies they can actually pursue, as we saw in the previous blog. Despite significant progress on financial inclusion over the last decade, the range of services that poor and rural households have access to remains limited, creating a significant barrier to climate adaptation. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The next blog in this series will examine how financial inclusion initiatives can facilitate access to the financial services needed for autonomous adaptation so that low-income communities such as Ummi’s and Masum’s can go beyond muddling through and build long-term resilience to climate change. 

This three-blog series shares findings from research by CGAP along with Decodis and MSC on how people living in poverty in Nigeria and Bangladesh are preparing for, coping with, and adapting to climate shocks, and what role financial services are playing in supporting them. The first outlines how households in Nigeria are using financial services in responding to climate events, while the second considers the complexities of locally-led adaptation, and the third explores how financial systems can better support climate adaptation.

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