Climate change preparedness - how do we get from here to there?

Well, it's one thing to know that we need to transform society to a more sustainable, more just and equitable future. But it's quite another to know exactly how to get there.

My filmmaker husband John Bowey, ever the wise philosopher, often comments that it's hard to fix a broken car while you're driving it. But how can we drive an entire global economy, even a national economy, into a pit stop to make the necessary changes?

For decades, I've felt dismayed by the scale of our problems in fixing a broken society. There are so many dimensions of change we must make - political, social, economic, psychological, logistical, cultural, educational - more or less all at once. And within a decade or two at most. But in some crazy, maybe indefensible respects, I'm also undaunted. We are heading into a future of great local experimentation.

Yet how do we get "there" from "here"? How can we experiment with solutions in a way that enables the best ones to float to the top quickly, and be absorbed and adapted by other places in a way that's positive, collaborative, smooth, and socially fairer than what we currently have?

About 12 years ago in Cape Town, South Africa, running some climate change planning and preparedness workshops with government officials, a few of us had a "lightbulb moment." We realized that sometimes the bottlenecks to transformative change aren't really about a failure of aspiration or imagination. Sometimes they're about something much more mundane: the architecture of the way we plan and implement. And while that is really pretty dull, it also makes these bottlenecks potentially easier to unplug.

In 2009 and 2010, a small team of us started helping several dozen South African senior planners and policy advisors think about how to plan for climate change. It was a great program, funded by ICLEI, the international sustainability association of local governments. Our 'students' were mid-career professionals in top positions - advising the provincial premier, mayors and city councils in South Africa's Western Cape Province. Our expert team included Gina Ziervogel, a climate social adaptation specialist at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Arthur Chapman, a hydrologist and climate risk analyst, Ailsa Holloway, a disaster risk mitigation academic at UCT, Janet Small, UCT's course developer for lifelong learning, and myself, an ecosystems and climate scientist and public policy planner.

The men and women we worked with in those weeks - mostly land use, economic and public works planners at city and landscape scales - were used to working alone, or on small planning committees. On a daily basis, they planned the next year's budgets, workplan activities, deliverables, spatial priorities, and so on. They were mostly ordinary people, good-hearted, but focused just on doing their job adequately. One or two were very much more interested in climate change, in leading the pack on finding innovative solutions, and raising major awareness of the issue. But most were well-meaning cogs in a system. And therein lay the rub. They felt they were trapped by that system. And really, it was true: they were.

After a couple of days with the first group in 2009, a little lightbulb finally went on my head. The problem for these planners and policy advisors wasn't really a failure of imagination, or a poisoning of politics.

(Caveat: I use the term 'poisoning of politics' deliberately, as I now live back in the USA. In South Africa, and in Namibia where I'd started that country's first national climate change program in 1998-99, climate denialists were extremely few in number. They were mostly old white engineers, had close ties to industry and oil companies, and were thus pretty easy for most people to discount. So the 'merchants of doubt,' as Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway would describe them, had not really poisoned the society to the same extent as they have in the USA.)

What we learned was this. Planners and policy analysts trying to prepare for climate change may know well that climate risks are real, that their existing plans and policies are inadequate, and that they need to do better. But they are hamstrung by the very mundane, very fundamental architecture of "doing government." Almost everything about the way in which they work was insufficient to help them -- and the mayors, city councils, provincial governments and premiers that they serve -- prepare for climate change. Why? I realized this came down to five tedious, but absolutely essential things:

  1. Planning horizons. Workplans were usually done on an annual basis, sometimes with five-yearly horizons. Our students were constrained in many ways. They were subject to annual performance plans and measurable achievements relative to the targets of five-year strategic plans. Now, five-year plans are a good thing. They help government or organizational planners to reorient thinking away from the minutiae and the status quo. But they are often an accumulation of annual plans, which don't.

  2. Budget cycles. Just like content-planning horizons, the planners and policy analysts we worked with were locked into short-term fiscal-planning cycles, which made it difficult to propose and fund transformative changes.

  3. Capital expenditure constraints. An example: a municipal sewage-treatment plant in a rural, hilly area in South Africa's Western Cape Province had been washed out by winter storms for three years running. Each year, operations were suspended, there was a drama and a mess, and downstream communities were threatened. Each year, the local municipality diverted minor finances within annual budgets to patch up the plant. And of course the next year, the same thing happened again. After some time, finally the municipality was able to secure approval of significant capital expenditures to rebuild the sewage treatment plant at another site - out of harm's way.

  4. Chains of command and approval. Almost three quarters of the planners we worked with in the first year reported finding it difficult to get unconventional plans and ideas past superiors who had spent longer in a bureaucratic system and were less willing to deviate from the norm.

  5. Discretionary funding limits. Public funds are, rightly, controlled pretty tightly. But it became clear that most of the planners and public works directors we worked with were frustrated. They were frustrated at the time wasted when climate damage, like the washout of a major highway in a storm, could not be quickly repaired - or indeed it could only be patched up, and not redesigned for greater future climate resilience. They were frustrated at the rigid budgetary controls that prevented shifting of funds between budget lines, or roll-over or investment of significant discretionary / emergency funds.

It's almost impossible to imagine fundamental change without well-informed longer horizons, like 10-20 years. Both the countries that I spent years working in on these issues - Namibia and South Africa - do have 'Vision 2030'-style national development plan envisioning processes. But these are not at the level of detail needed to transform current practice into what's needed in the future. And nor are they always implemented.

So how DO we fix a car while it's driving? That moment in 2009 was one of many times in my government career when it became clear that bottom-up change - from the officials who routinely handle climate-driven disasters, or who try to plan to avoid them - is almost impossible. Top-down change, and government-wide acceptance of the need for it, is essential here. This is the stuff of higher-level interventions and procedural change, after cross-tier and inter-sectoral consultations between levels of government. Most countries have such mechanisms, but how often do they use them to change the way government actually works?

California and Washington States in the USA are governments to watch along these lines. It's worth keeping an eye on how they manage these structural changes.

Whatever the mechanisms may be in different countries, states and provinces, now is the time to use them.

And where we don't have such mechanisms, we need to create them without fail -- in the next couple of years. Local experimentation is key. Luckily, there's quite a lot of it. But not yet enough.


This blog was drawn from the following incomplete manuscript which I wrote shortly after the climate preparedness workshops we gave, but never published in a peer-reviewed journal due to, well, the daily over-busyness of a government job in a lively country finding its way pretty vigorously into the future:

ZIERVOGEL G, BARNARD P, CHAPMAN A, HOLLOWAY A & SMALL J, In prep. Incorporating climate change preparedness into municipal and provincial planning. Draft manuscript on lessons learned from workshop series held in Western Cape, South Africa.

I'd like to thank Gina Ziervogel, Arthur Chapman, Ailsa Holloway and Janet Small, and also our colleagues Guy Midgley and Harald Winkler for their collegiality, collaboration and/or robust discussion at the time!