Climate solutions on the cheap: Climate change work unbound by climate finance

Climate resilience work is:
1) anti-poverty work. It is community development that values broader community interests, that values the environmental context and the community’s welfare;

2) health disparity reduction that accounts for the vulnerability of the population to the negative health effects of severe weather;

3) community advocacy that promotes the empowerment of communities to overcome the challenge of a warming climate to survivability;

4) human development that promotes the self-determination of communities in defining the problems that ail them and the solutions best suited to address those problems.

Framed as fundamentally about these, promoting climate resilience should be familiar work to those who currently do community work.

So why do our communities not claim their vital role in addressing climate change? Why do so many of us accept that climate resilience work is only for policy-makers and scientists who require major climate finance? The answer has many aspects, many of which are predicated on our shared lack of belief in our own ideas and our paired values with positivism in terms of what counts as knowledge and professional perspective.

As I read climate change studies and as my team and I explore local manifestations of the problem in a rural community in Southern California, I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the climate problem and the conventional solutions to it. What helps me persevere is the very thing that led me to this work in the first place: anti-poverty work.

Poverty is a critical social problem, more now in the U.S. than in recent years, and definitely an intractable one in the Philippines. I began my undergraduate and capped my graduate studies with my own ideas on anti-poverty work, and one lesson I found is that poverty is too big when perceived as a whole. To address it, poverty needs to be broken down into its smaller bits. We need to do the same with climate change: break it down into smaller bits. The tool with which to define these smaller bits is you, the reader, and the commitment you have to doing something about it in your own way based on your own understanding of the inherent solutions in your personal experience of climate change.

Community workers and individual community members are vital actors in addressing climate change just as they are also key in addressing health disparities and poverty. The growing recognition of the importance of community engagement in climate resilience is deepened by the notion that, like health disparities and poverty, climate change has social determinants.

I increasingly fundamentally view climate resilience as anti-poverty work, and that climate finance does not have to be a barrier to it. Big solutions are not the only relevant solutions. Expensive solutions are not the only effective solutions. Affordable community-driven and community-defined solutions are relevant and could be effective solutions, too.

The Limits of Climate Finance

If we subject the health of the planet and the survivability of life on it to cost-benefit analysis and a ROI framework, instead of a more integrated analysis of how we are all networked, then you end up with the financialization of a genuinely collectivist enterprise designed to produce a social good. While the role of finance cannot be dismissed or avoided, its super-sized role in climate resilience could be scaled down. Climate finance as we know it does not have to be the context of our choices. We cannot let it for it has the potential of corroding them. Besides, climate finance has to set right its own backyard first.

The current climate finance system has many complex moving parts whose interaction leads to the following unresolved issues:

1). Competing rationales on the source and direction of climate finance funds: There remains a debate on whether funds should come from North and flow toward the South, since the developed world has primarily been responsible for the bulk of the anthropogenic causes to climate change, or if funds should come from the South, itself;

2). Prioritization of competing uses of funds: There are competing interests that pit mitigation and adaptation against each other — subjecting climate resilience work to an ‘either/or’, instead of a ‘both/and’ framework — which in turn turns our view of reducing emissions through deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) as an ancillary activity, as opposed to a complementary component of an integrated strategy; and

3). Limited coordination among stakeholder sectors: There are multiple funder stakeholder sectors like carbon finance, development banks, private capital, and public finance that do not necessarily coordinate well, especially in the use of their respective funding instruments, e.g., debt, equity, grants.

This complexity leads to a tremendously drawn-out and highly-technical (to be read “inaccessible to most people”) process of analysis, planning, and pre-development work that, by nature, overestimates the value of professional actors and underestimates that of community stakeholders. Affected communities are relegated to being beneficiaries when it is the engagement of these same communities that often is ultimately the most vital to the sustainability of climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.

The net effect is a commodification, privatization and financialization of climate resilience work that hollows out the collectivism inherent in it, and that limits the pool of possibilities because of an exclusively high finance framework. Ordinary individuals, families and communities whose engagement is vital are pushed aside for lack of technical know-how, when in fact they should be valued instead for their potential as networked sources of cost-effective, innovative, and alternative local interventions.

For climate finance to be more responsive, we, together with conventional actors, should focus on coordination and ‘meaningful stakeholder engagement’ across sectors to guard against the financialization of climate resilience work. We should aim to link the grass roots with the grass tops.

For climate solutions to be unbound by the parameters of high finance, we need to further engage local communities to play a role in the mitigation of and adaptation to the local effects of climate change. We all need to define the problem based on our experience with it and derive solutions directly from that experience.

Just as local communities have contributed to the practice of poverty alleviation and population health, communities also have a lot to offer in climate resilience by way of cost-effective and sustainable solutions. Unlocking these community-defined solutions is the mission of my team, and I hope it also becomes that of at least one reader who agrees with the broad argument I attempted to lay out here.

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