Obstacles to climate change adaptation decisions: a case study of sea-level rise and coastal protection measures in Kiribati

Abstract

International aid is increasingly focused on adaptation to climate change. At recent meetings of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the developed world agreed to rapidly increase international assistance to help the developing world respond to the impacts of climate change. In this paper, we examine the decision-making challenges facing internationally supported climate change adaptation projects, using the example of efforts to implement coastal protection measures (e.g. sea walls, mangrove planting) in Kiribati. The central equatorial Pacific country is home to the Kiribati Adaptation Project, the first national-level climate change adaptation project supported by the World Bank. Drawing on interview and document research conducted over an 8-year period, we trace the forces influencing decisions about coastal protection measures, starting from the variability and uncertainty in climate change projections, through the trade-offs between different measures, to the social, political, and economic context in which decisions are finally made. We then discuss how sub-optimal adaptation measures may be implemented despite years of planning, consultation, and technical studies. This qualitative analysis of the real-world process of climate change adaptation reveals that embracing a culturally appropriate and short-term (~20 years) planning horizon, while not ignoring the longer-term future, may reduce the influence of scientific uncertainty on decisions and provide opportunities to learn from mistakes, reassess the science, and adjust suboptimal investments. The limiting element in this approach to adaptation is likely to be the availability of consistent, long-term financing.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development and the Kiribati Adaptation Program for their assistance throughout this research. Special thanks go to T. Kirata, A. Tekiau, T. Teema and T. Beiateuea for all their help over the years in coordinating field visits, providing an informal education on i-Kiribati culture, and nursing the lead author to health during a bout with dengue fever. The authors also thank two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism of earlier drafts, and J. Lehman for her assistance in initial literature research. This work was supported by the NSERC Discovery Program (S. Donner), an SSHRC graduate award (S. Webber), and a UBC Hampton Award (S. Donner).

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Correspondence to Simon D. Donner.

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Handled by John E Hay, The University of the South Pacific, The Cook Islands.

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Donner, S.D., Webber, S. Obstacles to climate change adaptation decisions: a case study of sea-level rise and coastal protection measures in Kiribati. Sustain Sci 9, 331–345 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-014-0242-z

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Keywords

  • Adaptation
  • Climate change financing
  • Sea-level rise
  • Coastal protection measures
  • Pacific Islands
  • Uncertainty
  • Kiribati