Strengthening, not creating: Learning from communities on climate change adaptation

A spotlight on climate justice

Written By Jennifer Rey-Goyeneche, TBTI Research Assistant

The sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] reiterates what we, as a society, have chosen to disregard for years: human activities have driven increasing and intensifying changes in the global climate system. Changes include unprecedented rises in atmospheric concentrations of well-mixed greenhouse gases (GHG), global temperature, precipitations, sea level, and compound extreme events such as heatwaves, droughts, and tropical cyclones. Despite the alarming projected scenarios, the report offers hope for limiting the ongoing warming effect in the next decades through immediate and sustained reductions in cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHG — key efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [2], specifically on climate action (SDG 13).

The reminder of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels and securing a global net zero by 2050 target raises questions about responsibility around, and vulnerability to, climate change. Not surprisingly, answers to both matters highlight persistent socioeconomic and environmental injustices: while developed countries are the largest emitters of GHG, developing nations are the most vulnerable to negative climate change impacts [3]. Although the latest IPCC report focuses on the physical science of global climate change, it is worth acknowledging that even though the responsibility may be shared, it is the differentiated accountabilities that are required. Hopefully, this will be reflected in the complementary IPCC analyses on vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation, to be released in 2022.

In the face of the current climate crisis, marine and coastal ecosystems are recognized as particularly vulnerable. Communities that largely depend on oceans such as small-scale fisheries are now confronted with fast-emerging and more frequent threats from climate change hazards, in addition to the usual economic and political pressures. The community-scale climate issues facing small-scale fisheries need to be examined in order to appreciate the complex array of the challenges, as well as to take proper actions and responses.

Photo credit: "Flash floods" by amirjina is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A good starting point might be learning how local communities recover from environmental disasters. A study on post-disaster livelihood reconstruction and resilience enhancement in coastal Bangladesh reports successful local livelihood strategies for adapting to, and recovering from, extreme weather events [4]. Specifically, community resilience to Cyclones Sidr (2007) and Aila (2009) was based on learning from previous disturbances, self-organization, livelihood diversification, and geographical mobility. Considering that Bangladesh ranks 7th in the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 [5], proactive measures are encouraging news, and could help reduce vulnerability on coastal, small-scale fisheries communities. Of particular interest are the implications of two strategies adopted by a large number of small-scale fisheries workers: occupational change and relocation. These may not be the most preferred responses, with repercussion such as effects on traditional ways of life and knowledge systems of fishing communities.

Environmental change is an alarming reality on a global level, causing rising sea levels and increasingly intense droughts, often accompanied by crop failures, famine, conflict over natural resources, and migration [6].

Dr. Gwyn Campbell (McGill University, Canada), 2021


Climate change is certainly more than a physical issue, and much can be learned from broadening the thinking about causes, effects, and responses. There is, for instance, a call for bottom-up and transdisciplinary approaches and partnerships for sustainable and just development, as well as local solutions [4.6]. History also offers lessons on how to understand and, ultimately, tackle the climate crisis [6]. Indeed, the history of climate change is not limited to the scientific analyses of past and future physical conditions, but it is underpinned by social relations, economic forces, belief systems, and further complex community dynamics [4,6].

Preserving and strengthening time-tested traditional institutions and faith-based moral guides, and maintaining and applying social memory of and experiential learning from prior disasters are all necessary steps towards enhancing community resilience to environmental shocks and associated stresses [4].

Uddin et al., 2020

Evidently, small-scale fisheries are not passive victims of climate change but rather proactive agents that develop collective capacity to cope with, adapt to, and recover from hazards [7]. However, recognizing their agency alone does not translate into derailing efforts that tackle the climate crisis because an already disadvantaged and vulnerable group will learn to live with it. Considering the contributions of small-scale fisheries to food security and poverty alleviation, it is crucial to support the strengthening, not creation, of climate resilience [7]. As highlighted by Dr C. Emdad Haque (University of Manitoba, Canada), the case study of Bangladesh demonstrates that “[external actors] just need to enhance the capacity that is already built in” [7]; for example, through institutional assistance and programs to share and mobilize their local learning. At a global level, greater climate accountability from actors with decision-making powers over resource management, as well as guaranteeing the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries[8], is called for.



1 IPCC. (2021). Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

2 United Nations. (2018). The 17 Goals. Retrieved from

3 Althor, G., Watson, J. & Fuller, R. (2016). Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change. Scientific Reports, 6, 20281.

4 Uddin, M. S., Haque, C. E. & Walker, D. (2020). Community resilience to cyclone and storm surge disasters: evidence from coastal communities of Bangladesh. Journal of Environmental Management, 264, 110457.

5 German Watch. (2021). Global Climate Risk Index 2021. Retrieved from:

6 McGill Alumni. (2021, September 13). Environmental crisis in the Indian Ocean world: Past-to-present patterns [Video]. YouTube.

7 V2V Global Partnership. (2021, August 27). Post-disaster livelihood reconstruction and resilience enhancement by the small-scale fishers [Video]. YouTube.

8 FAO. (2015). Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication. Retrieved from