Governing borderless climate risks: moving beyond the territorial framing of adaptation

Submitted by Alice Wojcik | published 11th Sep 2019 | last updated 11th Sep 2019
Adaptation without borders

Introduction

Despite the increasing relevance of cross-border flows of goods, capital and people in shaping risks and opportunities today, we still live in a “bordered” world, where the nation-state plays a key role in planning and governance.

The impacts of climate change will not be limited by national borders, and thus the governance of climate change adaptation should also consider borderless climate risks that cascade through the international system.

In this paper, the authors demonstrate how the notion of borderless climate risks challenges the dominant territorial framing of adaptation and its problem structure. It asks:

  • Why have a territorial framing and the national and subnational scales dominated adaptation governance?
  • How do borderless climate risks challenge this framing and what governance responses are possible?

This paper was published online in the journal International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics on 30 May 2019. 

The text below provides an overview of the key points from the paper. See the full text for much more detail.

Scales of Adaptation

The IPCC's definition of adaptation is:

“adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2001, p. 982). 

However, this does not specify the scale at which either the 'adjustment' or 'effects' will operate. Within adaptation literature, it is implied that adaptation requires governance across multiple administrative levels to facilitate effective actions and sustainable outcomes. Yet, while the need for multi-level governance is widely recognized, adaptation governance to date has been strongly focused on the national or sub-national levels.

Overall, despite growing activity around climate change adaptation at multiple levels, the focus of these efforts has been almost exclusively national or sub-national in scale and the framing has been territorial and place-based.

Borderless Climate Risks

Climate change is held up as a truly “global” problem and yet, the problem that we need to adapt to is usually seen as a local phenomenon.

Potential benefits of adaptation beyond local and national scales are often overlooked when the focus is on direct climate risks in a given place.

Two of the most common borderless climate risks identifed are:

  • Food security, through climate-induced disruptions in global food supply chains
  • Cross-border climate-induced population displacement and migration
  • Water scarcity
  • Climate-induced species range shifts
  • Climate-induced human health risks have potentially cross-border effects

Overall, these risks can propagate through diferent pathways: biophysical, trade, financial flows and people.

Territorial Issues

Drawing on constructivist international relations theory, the paper argues that the epistemic community that has developed to interpret climate change adaptation for decision-makers had certain features (e.g. strong environmental sciences foundation, reliance on place-based case study research) that established and subsequently reinforced the territorial framing.

This framing was then reinforced by an international norm that adaptation was primarily a national or local responsibility, which has paradoxically also informed calls for international responsibility for funding adaptation.

Implications

Adaptation is an ambiguous policy challenge and, as such, issue framing disproportionately shapes the kinds of governance choices that are preferred and pursued.

The complexity implied by “non-territorial” framings of adaptation cannot be underestimated as an explanatory factor of the dominance of more place-based approaches.

Understanding globally networked risk is not an easy undertaking for research, and adaptation assessments typically need to balance depth and breadth. Basing policy decisions on framings of risks as networked and global also poses challenges of additional and deep uncertainty, increasing the likelihood that decision-makers will prefer simpler framings of the same issue.

Conclusion

This paper proposes that the epistemic community that developed to interpret climate change adaptation for decision-makers had certain features (e.g. strong environmental sciences foundation, reliance on place-based case study research) that established and subsequently reinforced the territorial framing.

This framing was then reinforced by an international norm that adaptation was primarily a national or local responsibility, which has paradoxically also informed calls for international responsibility for funding adaptation.

Not until relatively recently has this framing and associated norm been contested, but now momentum is growing for a more diversifed governance approach. The paper concludes by identifying types of governance responses at three different scales:

  • National and bilateral;
  • Transnational;
  • International and regional