• Karl Schultz

We live with a system replete with disincentives to sustainable adaptation

Part 1 of Blog Series: What makes for sustained adaptation?


One of the most important long-term climate adaptation challenges is how to motivate - and sustain – appropriate capital investments and adapted practices across all systems and at all scales. The ‘adaptation gap[1] is immense and, so far, the decisions, effort and resources put into adaptation are clearly insufficient.


For example, among climatically vulnerable people such as smallholder farmers, it is a challenge to bridge the gap between current practices and knowledge, and those practices and knowledge which can lead to tangible vulnerability reductions, measured in terms of regular viable crop yields or other measures of sustained livelihoods. Even with well-meaning external support in the form of training and equipment, there is ample evidence that, once this support is withdrawn, farmers often revert to their old practices and become even more vulnerable.

Overcoming this gap requires, somehow, engendering motivation and providing incentives to continue to undertake changes to farming practices in both the short and medium terms which can prepare farmers for longer-term - and more severe - climate-related stresses. The motivational barrier is likely to occur because new, more climate-resilient practices usually require additional know-how and are usually ‘unproven’ for the subject farming communities. Not only are they likely to require more up-front effort (as well as more effort over time), but, because they are not part of existing community norms, they may be viewed with a degree of suspicion. In light of this, it is not surprising that a farmer, who on a normal basis might rely on a marginal production surplus, would be reluctant to make considerable change to practices, and stick to them without external subsidy if they are unlikely to bring any obvious short-term benefits (and especially when droughts, floods, and other climate disasters don’t happen during most seasons). Yet, with anticipated changes in climate, it is even more critical to incentivize farmers to undertake and invest in climate resilient practices and technologies now, or they and their communities face becoming increasingly imperilled over time.


Despite advocates make compelling arguments for climate adaptation funding and policies, and public and charitable programs deploying considerable technical and financial support for adaptation, this motivational challenge persists. In some cases, how these programs operate exacerbate the problem, and, worse, can introduce new disincentives to sustainable adaptation – or even encourage maladaptation - that puts climatically vulnerable people at greater peril.


Over this blog series I’ll aim to describe and consider alternatives to the following systemic dysfunctions or disincentives for effective and sustainable adaptation:


  1. Global adaptation goals are input-oriented - as money spent - rather than focused on adaptation outcomes.

  2. Most publicly funded or philanthropic adaptation support programs have a short term and time-limited horizon, so from their perspective adaptation projects typically “finish” in just a few years. But future climate impacts are accelerating, decade upon decade.

  3. Private sector adaptations are limited by short-term objectives.

  4. Adaptation is discouraged because the positive social benefits of private adaptations are unrewarded by the public sector, and the private benefits of public adaptations are inadequately taxed by governments.

  5. Programs and projects often lack a focus on the future; they too often place minimal consideration on the range of future climate impacts.

  6. The international climate finance system creates perverse incentives to re-label development projects as climate adaptation projects. Recall my first point that the goal is financial expenditure.

  7. ‘Metrics to sell’ a project’s success are not the same as ‘metrics to tell’ the reality of a project’s impact. Monitoring and evaluation metrics selected may not support a robust and comparable understanding of project impacts on community vulnerability levels and adaptive capacity.

  8. There is a poor understanding of the type, level, and necessary timeframe for external incentives to enable sustained and sustainable adaptation practices and investments.

The intent in identifying these “systemic dysfunctions” is not to discount the tremendous work, knowledge and positive impact that many adaptation interventions have had on vulnerable communities. Rather, I hope it encourages dialogue between those who disagree with my diagnosis and are willing to show why, those who may feel trapped by the system, and those who are eager to work on transforming it.


This blog series seeks your feedback and further suggestions to diagnose why our global adaptation efforts don’t meet the adaptation gap. What connects most if not all of the suggested dysfunctions, however, is a lack of action on how to effectively measure adaptation results. I’ll try and explain how the Higher Ground Foundation’s work is hoping to overcome this problem and how it ties in with each of the systemic disincentives so we can build a well-adapted future.


I hope the impact of this series is that we better understand, articulate, and resolve to work together on transformational solutions and alliances that may replace any corrupted practices and institutional constraints with a better system of incentives that guides policies, programs, plans and investment in sustainable adaptation.

[1] UNEP 2018. The Adaptation Gap Report 2018. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, Kenya.

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