Transformation is a term we often hear. It highlights the deep changes required in the organization of economics, technology and society if humanity is to live with a changing climate and continue to thrive. But what does transformation mean? What or who is to transformation, and who decides?  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines transformation as fundamental change to systems processes and functions. This is useful in signalling the high ambition for transformation – fundamental change – but says nothing about the political or social context for such deep changes. Transformation needs to be better understood if it is to be taken-up by policy actors and those at risk who are asking: what would being part of a transformation feel like, what does it entail?

In the streets, classrooms and boardrooms, there is a concern that humanity will be transformed – potentially made extinct – by climate change. The question is not if such fundamental change will happen but how far this will be forced on us by the disastrous impacts of runaway climate change or through a more planned and preemptive set of actions including both climate mitigation and adaptation. Extinction Rebellion and the social action inspired by Greta Thunberg are just two expressions of this concern. If the more planned and preemptive pathways is preferred, it becomes important to uncover the ways in which transformation is already being used to promote specific ways of living with climate change in science and policy.

International political negotiations and national policy on climate change Loss and Damages has crystalized this debate. Loss and Damage deals with responsibility for acting to reduce and bare the impacts of climate change on the ground. Three different interpretations of transformation can be found in Loss and Damages policy documentation and now also appear in wider climate change debates. Which interpretation of transformation is chosen has profound implication for resulting priorities: for who and what transform, who decides and what transformation feels like. Yet these different interpretations are rarely if ever made explicit. Such a lack of transparency limits scrutiny and could allow the deep changes associated with transformation to compound existing social inequalities and environmental degradation. This would surely be the worst of ironic outcomes for transformation – undermining the foundations of social and environmental wellbeing in an act of self-destruction delivered in the name of living with a changing climate.

In our paper for Climate Policy, we describe these contrasting interpretations as: transformation as intensification, transformation as extension and transformation as liberation.

Transformation as intensification describes acts of adaptation that produce significant collateral damage (or positive unexpected impacts).  Associated with big adaptation investments applied uncritically leading to the ramping-up of inequalities between people and unsustainable exploitation of the environment. Existing unequal relations and the distribution of decision-making power, wealth and opportunity are not questioned and become intensified. Examples include the uncritical deployment of new technology from information technology to sea defenses. When these are deployed without consideration of social and ecological context they are very likely to exacerbate underlying inequalities, even if they score well in indexes of adaptation and apparent risk reduction. At best an opportunity is missed for achieving more progressive side-benefits of adaptation.

Transformation as an extension applies when existing efforts to reduce risk through adaptation meet their limits and new ‘transformative’ strategies are deployed. This kind of transformation can also introduce new kinds of social and ecological impact as a result of adaption actions, some of which might be unanticipated. The IPCC has indicated that the limits to adaptation are real and research has proposed that when these limits are reached a society has two choices: incur loss and damage or transform. Strategies such as livelihood diversification or shifting livelihoods altogether are described as transformation as extension. While this can extend the limits to adaptation for those able to shift their livelihoods or industries it can exacerbate the vulnerability of those left behind.

Transformation as liberation places policy focus on the dual demands of risk reduction and progressive development outcomes (including ecological sustainability and a concern for future generations). Adaptation alone is not justifiable under this understanding of transformation – fundamental change is needed in social, economic and technological systems to confront the systemic barriers to delivering the unmet development challenges so well-articulated for example in the Sustainable Development Goals. Transformation as liberation includes strategies such as empowering individuals to understand and realize their rights and ensuring access to land.

If we can agree that in a world already riven by multiple wounding inequalities transformation as liberation is the most desirable approach to living with climate change then how might we begin to practically achieve this?  Operationalizing transformation as liberation is challenging. Systemic change is required by global and national leaders with concerted effort from governments, big business and support form organized civil society. One of the most profound challenges to transformational change is countering the opposition of powerful actors and institutions who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

A vision of transformation as liberation should empower leaders to be bold. The alternative of transformation that shies away from addressing historical development failures or of procrastination that ushers in runaway climate change will have catastrophic consequences for human wellbeing. Brave choices are needed now to push beyond existing development processes and procedures so that development can bring resilience and sustainable development. There is clear public demand for this.  Most recently the world has seen young leaders emerge and a global movement established on these very principles. The SDGs provide a globally agreed framework.  In the lead up to COP 21 in Paris Pope Francis penned an encyclical which proposed that climate change is a development failure caused by over consumption in developed countries. And yet developed countries have been slow to take the necessary action needed to address the climate challenge. What the world needs now is strong leaders who are brave and who are willing to work together. These leaders will see in losses and damages an opportunity to create a fairer, more equitable world.

In early December the world convenes for the 25th Conference of the Parties. For two weeks the spotlight will be on Madrid as the world comes together to discuss the next steps. The world’s political leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the young people who have put everything on the line to stand up for their future.

Read the full paper. Photo: Koko Warner

Erin Roberts is a researcher focused on global climate policy under the UNFCCC and national climate strategies in developing countries.  Her particular interest is in how transformation can be carried out in practice and how policy agendas can be synergized in practice – and the role of leadership in those processes. She has worked across Africa and Asia and is a Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute and a Visiting Researcher for the International Centre for Climate Change and Development. Erin is currently completing her PhD at KIng’s College London where her thesis focused on the role of policy entrepreneurship in the evolution of Loss and Damage policies in Bangladesh. 

Mark Pelling is Professor of Geography, King’s College London. His expertise is in the social and institutional aspects of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, with a focus in low and middle income countries and urban contexts. His most recent book is Adaptation to Climate Change: from resilience to transformation. He is a Coordinating Lead Author for the IPCC 6th Assessment Report. Mark is currently seconded to the Global Challenges Research Fund as a lead for their Resilience Portfolio.