Image credit: “The elderly man in the village of Nalma, Lamjung, Nepal” by Mokhamad Edliadi/CIFOR is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Understanding present and future climate change risks rely heavily on a scientific and policy tradition of top-down knowledge generation and decision making. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  reports are  an example of this kind of distanced diagnosis. People-centred, place-based approaches, on the other hand, include analysis of vulnerable populations and provide for more understanding of how and why people behave and respond to climate risks in the recent past and present. Declan Conway et al., in a perspective in Nature Climate Change, comment on the potential to bring together these more people-centred, place-based approaches with top-down modelling. The importance of reconciling these contrasting ways of understanding climate change impacts is important as it can reveal why some people adapt while others do not and how this may change in the future, says Mark Tebboth of the UEA School of Development and the Tyndall Centre, an author of the commentary.

The commentary draws on research carried out under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) programme. CARIAA comprised four consortia working in three climate-sensitive systems and included both top-down and bottom up approaches. For example, in semi-arid regions, a life history approach was used by the CARIAA team to understand how mobility shapes the trajectories of people’s lives and enables them to manage emergent risks linked to environmental change.

In another example, surveys and focus group discussions were undertaken in communities in the Gandaki basin in Nepal, a river basin dependent on snowmelt and glaciers. The data were used to increase knowledge of livelihoods and local hazards through learning about indigenous capacities, knowledge, and practices. Deltas are frequently sites for major population and urban growth. Adaptation problems in these areas include the balance between hard engineering for protection, living with risks, and working with nature, and potential for eventual submergence/loss of coastal land. Rice farmers also face floods and salinization, affecting food security and health. Governments have turned to relocation as a solution, but this has shown to create new vulnerabilities and loss of agency for the communities. In the Mahanadi Delta in India, insecure land tenure and uneven access to credit drives the spatial patterns of vulnerability to environmental hazards. These risks correlate with future migration behaviour in the delta. A survey in four delta regions showed 40% of household heads intended to migrate in the future with 0.6% citing environmental issue as the main deciding factor.

“The embeddedness and interplay between climate and society underscores the critical need to situate climate adaptation within the context of broader socio-economic, environmental and political processes; something that top-down approaches often fail to consider,” says Mark Tebboth of UEA. However, whilst people-centred, place-based approaches highlight the reliance of many people on the natural environment and help to address practical climate adaptation agendas ultimately, greater insights will be derived by blending methodological approaches and using the strengths of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Originally written and published for the Tyndall Centre