Democratizing climate adaptation: Exploring the subnational political architectures of responsive climate support
Harry W. Fischer
Planning for global climate change is one of the defining challenges of the present era. Climate change poses particular risks to rural populations in low-income countries, where many populations are highly dependent upon agriculture and natural resources for their survival. In such contexts, many people already live close to the margin of subsistence, and they often lack the resources to respond to challenges when they arise. Providing basic support for such groups to confront climate risk and change is increasingly recognized as an essential element of development policy around the world.
This lecture focuses on the role of local and subnational democratic institutions in facilitating responses to climate challenges in rural areas of low-income countries, drawing on empirical evidence from India and Nepal. I first discuss three fundamental challenges of climate change planning: the uncertainty of future conditions, the complexity of human-environmental systems, and the path-dependent nature of systemic transformations. Taken together, these three challenges highlight fundamental limitations in the ability of planners to design effective climate responses in advance.
Instead, I argue for the importance of building more responsive governance systems – in short, the combination of institutions and decision-making processes that serve to link available public support systems to changing local needs on the ground. Inspired by analyses of power and politics in climate adaptation planning from the field of Political Ecology, I frame local climate governance as fundamentally a question of democracy. It is, in short, essential to understand the characteristics of a political system that ensure citizens gain a meaningful say in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and that public authorities are responsive to their needs. I discuss several bodies of my empirical research that provide insight into the relationship between democratic institutions, local planning processes, and climate responses.
First, I analyze the role of decentralization policy – the devolution of resources and planning authorities to democratically elected governments – in providing space for more meaningful and inclusive democratic participation to grow over time. Second, I analyze how and when local democratic planning may translate into effective climate responses using empirical evidence on small-scale water infrastructure projects and longer-term agricultural transformations in the middle Himalayas. Third, I analyze how local institutions may work more effectively in tandem with a broader set of state institutions in order to protect basic security in the face of shock, using case material from intersecting challenges from COVID-19 and climate threats. Finally, I discuss future research directions for studying how and when democratic local governance may help to build more secure and sustainable agroecological systems through forest and landscape restoration.
Taken as a whole, the lecture argues for the importance of moving beyond technical aspects of climate planning to analyze deeper questions about the nature of institutions, political systems, and citizens’ empowerment within them as key forces in building more just, secure, and sustainable rural landscapes.