Africa: Climate Conversations - What Lessons Can Sandy Teach?

Here's a striking juxtaposition - I spent last week with government officials from the poorest countries in the world at the Climate Investment Funds meeting in Istanbul discussing their preparedness for more storms, droughts, floods, sea level rise, and temperature extremes that climate change will bring.

At the same time, the eastern seaboard of the United States was being brought to a standstill by 'superstorm' Sandy.

And while this highlights how we are all in this climate change thing together, it also demonstrates how different countries and communities across the world are at vastly different levels of preparedness for climate change.

Measuring and benchmarking preparedness for climate change is - as we discussed in Istanbul - a real headache. But it is absolutely essential if we are to secure scarce public and private investment for climate preparedness, adaptation and resilience-building.

There are, however, five main measurement challenges.

First is the unpredictability of local climate impacts. Knowledge is amassing quickly on what climate change will mean across the world, and climate models are giving better and better global projections. Yet, the uncertainty of predicting localized climate impacts remains pretty high.

For example, when calculating changes in rainfall for the Greater Mekong sub-region, some models show average increases in rainfall while others show average reductions. This makes estimates of the threat level to people and systems right now more of a probabilistic, rather than exact, exercise.

Second, we live in complex systems, full of interconnections. Measuring whether a road can withstand a storm surge is one thing, but how about whether a whole city can cope with this - with all its co-dependencies such as integrated transit systems?

Or how about smallholder farmers who are facing floods because logging has taken place upstream? The financial crisis has galvanized more attention and attempts to benchmark systemic financial risk - the same needs to happen for climate risk.

Our third challenge is the sheer diversity of responses needed. Climate resilience can and should involve any number of things. For poor rural communities, the focus of IFAD's work, it can mean a road that isn't washed away during the monsoon season, or better representation in water user groups, or access to public health services - the list is long.

The breadth of responses required makes aggregating impacts a bit like adding apples to oranges. But measurement approaches should not discourage this diversity - diverse systems such as societies, communities, and farming systems are typically more resilient to climate change.

A problem with the original Green Revolution in agriculture was that it often encouraged a standardized approach to farming rather than tailoring it to the vastly different circumstances at the local level.

Fourth, describing climate resilience in numbers requires some ingenuity. Many aspects of resilience are not easily quantifiable, but we need numbers to compare and communicate. How to quantify whether women are given equal access to men in getting cropping advice or disaster relief from their governments?

Statisticians have been ingenious in finding a way to put most things in numbers, and the same is happening with climate resilience, such as through satellite-monitoring that picks up aspects of landscape resilience. But to have a complete picture these hard numbers need to be combined with other sets of data, such as household surveys and personal stories.

Our final challenge is timing. Climate change will continue to magnify both 'big events' such as Sandy, as well as low-intensity but high-frequency events, such as seasonal floods or dry spells. The problem is, we can only really know if people are becoming more resilient if we have a trend long enough to measure.

If we plan for, say, 4-degree Celsius increases in average global temperature, we will only really know if the adaptation efforts are successful when we start reaching these temperatures. So, we must measure some of the intermediate stepping stones needed that we think will build climate resilience.

Most monitoring systems end up in part, relying on input measurements - for example, the number of people receiving information from a new weather information system as a proxy for whether this will actually protect them from storms.

An old management adage says that, "You can't manage it if you can't measure it". A big effort is needed to improve how we measure climate resilience so that - alongside urgent efforts to curb emissions - we are as ready as we can be for what's coming.

Elwyn Grainger-Jones is director of the Environment and Climate Division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), where he is leading the design of the UN agency's new Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme.

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