Climate change adaptation as a new academic discipline

The world of higher education is beginning to recognise adaptation to climate change as a major research topic and an academic discipline, according to one of the world’s leading adaptation specialists, Saleemul Huq.

“Adaptation is no longer about analytical framing: it’s a learning-by-doing process,” said Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“In the last decade we’ve been doing a lot more of this learning-by-doing and we’re trying to capture it in terms of science.”

Huq is keen to promote climate adaptation as a discipline in its own right, with a new dual masters degree in climate change and development at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) that he founded at the Independent University, Bangladesh.

Research focuses on community-based adaptation and involves ‘action partners’ in the form of 11 international NGOs such as Oxfam and ActionAid, which are responsible for 20 field sites in different ecological zones and can transfer knowledge and experience gained in Bangladesh to other countries in which they operate.

For example, the NGO ActionAid Bangladesh supported a group of local elected bodies to implement local adaptation plans and budgets. ActionAid then asked ICCCAD to produce a report that was presented to the ministry of local government at a workshop.

“Now we are using this to help the ministry develop a funding proposal.”

There are also three layers of ‘research partners’: staff from environment programmes at selected regional Bangladeshi universities; national organisations with specialist expertise like the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute; and overseas partners such as Imperial College and the School of Oriental and African Studies in the UK and others in Australia, Germany and the US.

The international research partners provide advisors on particular research themes, including guidance on research design and ultimately publication in peer-reviewed journals, and for young researchers.

“We are just at the beginning of going up this learning curve, which will be co-generated by practitioners and researchers,” Huq said. “We are looking at a mechanism to facilitate that co-generation of knowledge.

“There may not be an adaptation science yet,” he added, “but there is certainly one in the making and in five to 10 years from now there will be a body of knowledge specific to climate adaptation.”

Pointing to the growth of university programmes on the subject, he cited the University of East Anglia and a new masters programme at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, both in the UK, and the establishment of several centres in Africa including at Makerere University in Uganda.

Huq recently ran a course in Kenya for universities interested in establishing similar courses or centres to ICCAD.

Huq said he is positioning his centre based in Dhaka to be a leader in the field.

“One of the peculiar features of adaptation as a science is that the rich have no advantage. If anything, the poor have a comparative advantage because we are sitting with the problem, we are having to face it,” he said.

“We will figure out the solutions as we go along, rather than at Oxford, Harvard or Yale. They have computer models that can simulate everything but they don’t have the problem. They’ll have to come to us.”