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Who defines “good” climate change adaptation and why it matters: a case study from Abaiang Island, Kiribati


Pacific Island Countries, despite significant variation in levels of exposure and internal adaptive capacities, are often portrayed homogenously as the world’s most vulnerable region to climate change. As such over the past few decades, a plethora of projects intended to assist communities across the region adapt to future climate change have been developed, channelled through multilateral and bilateral funding mechanisms and implemented in communities across a range of countries. Whether such adaptation projects have been effective in reducing the vulnerability of targeted groups remains unclear. This paper evaluates a climate change adaptation project focused on food security implemented across two communities on Abaiang Island, Kiribati (central Pacific). The project was independently evaluated using the following criteria: appropriateness, equity, efficacy, impact, and sustainability. Data was gathered from focus groups with recipient community members (n = 84) supplemented by interviews (n = 26) with relevant local stakeholders involved in implementation. Results show that while the project inputs (such as tangible and intangible goods and services) were provided, the outcomes of the project were largely ineffective and unsustained amongst the target communities. The main lesson is that local contextual factors—be they social norms, environmental, or local governance and decision-making structures—must be clearly identified, meaningfully acknowledged, and accounted for when designing and implementing local-level adaptation initiatives. This then raises broader questions about who is currently, and who should be defining “good” adaptation. The answer to this question has ramifications for social justice as well as broader issues for developing effective sustainable responses to the challenges of climate change in such places.

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Correspondence to Annah E. Piggott-McKellar.

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Ethical procedures under the guidelines of the University of Queensland were followed. This involved the use of participant information sheets where the information of the study was written in Kiribati and read to the participants with the recognition that they were able to ask questions about the study and to ensure that the information was being freely given and the process transparent. Consent forms were then signed by a representative of the group.

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Communicated by Debbie Ley

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Piggott-McKellar, A.E., McNamara, K.E. & Nunn, P.D. Who defines “good” climate change adaptation and why it matters: a case study from Abaiang Island, Kiribati. Reg Environ Change 20, 43 (2020).

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  • Climate change
  • Vulnerability
  • Donors
  • Pacific Island countries
  • Food security
  • Community