Originally published in Water Source, Fall/Winter 2023, Canadian Water & Wastewater Association.
There is a perceptible change underway in climate action; one that is long overdue. Undoubtedly a result of leadership from likely and unlikely places, there is a shift in expectations of climate action. It involves all five Ws and the H. Whether it is what we are doing about the climate, who is shaping the work, when we choose to act, where we focus our attention, why the climate goals are what they are or how we go about doing any of this – climate action today is very different than it was ten years ago, which is a very good thing.
As to what prompted and enabled this shift, the title provides a hint. Increased leadership, advocacy, and participation of knowledge holders in areas historically excluded from the climate space have brought in new skills, perspectives, values, and goals. They highlighted the shortcomings of “what”, “when”, “where”, “why”, and “how” and challenged practitioners and experts to see climate actions as opportunities to build better land relations, enhance biodiversity, improve water security, provide meaningful livelihoods, increase accessibility, and meet social justice goals.
Framing climate action as an integrated part of environmental, social, and economic action – rather than separate actions that compete for resources and attention – results in several mutually-reinforcing benefits. First, it makes climate action relevant by shifting discussions from whether or not any singular emissions reduction project can influence global climate change to what local co-benefits that singular emissions project can provide. Second, this integrated approach increases buy-in. Segments of the general public may feel disengaged from climate action because they struggle with more urgent and tangible challenges. However, if climate action is helping to address those challenges, their buy-in could build collective and political will to make future climate action even more ambitious and impactful. Third, the approach opens up new collaboration and funding opportunities. Designing climate action to be multifaceted requires new connections among knowledge holders and practitioners and enables access to different funding streams across multiple sectors. Finally, this integration allows the solutions to match the complexity of the problem. Issues such as water security, ecosystem health, food security, poverty, climate change, social justice, and biodiversity are interconnected. Past attempts often oversimplified and artificially separated them into smaller, easy-to-manage pieces. While doable, they led to weak responses and sometimes added to the issues they were designed to address. Instead, climate actions need to address the symptoms and the root causes of climate change. This leaves us with the question, “How?”
Challenging how things have always been done and building new ways of thinking and doing in unchartered territory will be disruptive. While that is a good thing in this case, not having a sense of direction can become frustrating and overwhelming. This may allow old habits to draw practitioners and decision-makers back into their comfort zones.
Luckily, there are resources and approaches that demonstrate how systems change can be possible. The Water of Systems Change by Kania et al. (2018) is one example. The authors describe systems change as the process of “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.” They identified six interconnected problems that typically hold an environmental or social problem in place. Climate action tends to tinker only at three of them – “policies,” “practices,” and “resource flows” – leading to siloed and incremental action with limited impact. To change how climate action is done, practitioners and decision-makers need to think differently, or change their “mental models” (i.e., habits of thought). Exposure to new ways of thinking is made possible by building new “relationships and connections.” Making space for these new voices, perspectives, values, and goals and allowing them to have a meaningful influence on climate action requires a shift in “power dynamics.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that how practitioners and decision-makers understand the problem and build solutions needs to be broadened and more collaborative. This is reinforced by the addition of guiding principles in national, provincial and territorial climate adaptation and mitigation frameworks. These principles highlight the importance of leveraging different knowledge systems and ways of knowing, advancing equitable outcomes, upholding Indigenous peoples’ rights, and increasing collaboration.
While stakeholder engagement has been a part of climate action for some time, there is significant room for improvement in how “stakeholder” is defined, who defines it, and how their knowledge is incorporated in climate action. As climate action is reframed and expands into new areas, new voices and perspectives need to be engaged and given opportunities to make decisions and lead.