The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — aka “code red for humanity“ — overflows with reasons for people everywhere to worry about the ever-hotter world we’re living in. But coastal and island communities are on the literal front lines of climate change — they’re already experiencing sea-level rise and ecosystem meltdowns that compromise their physical and economic health, and they need help now to avoid devastation.
The question is, what kind of help?
We can’t fix the problem. Even if we dramatically cut emissions over the next 10 years, a significant level of climate change is baked in. COP26 reflected that reality: Along with preventing further warming, one of its primary goals was to encourage adaptation to protect communities and natural habitats. We’re on our last best opportunity to do this, and we can’t fall back on traditional development approaches or assume a stable set of economic opportunities. If we want to build a resilient blue economy that uses ocean resources sustainably and promotes social and economic justice, we need to think differently.
Coastal communities must be pilots, not passengers, in the effort to chart a viable future. Industries, NGOs, impact investors and governments should help, but not via the typical route of trying to compensate for perceived community deficits. Instead, cross-sector collaborations should focus on fully valuing existing human, natural and cultural assets and employing them in line with social equity and circular economic principles.
How asset-based development supports climate justice
Traditional needs-based development strategies, which identify gaps and then attempt to attract new investment or industries to fill them, are vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles and changes in the policy environment. They’re also inherently top-down and tend to sideline locally rooted cultural assets and reinforce long-standing social inequities or leave them unaddressed.
Asset-based development starts with assessing the full spectrum of established community advantages and then focuses on leveraging those assets to create sustainable growth, a healthier environment and stronger regional economic connections. It’s a better climate adaptation strategy in near-shore communities for both practical and ethical reasons: It avoids the risks of trying to create something new from scratch in a rapidly changing situation. It puts more control in community hands. And the focus on resilience leads naturally to circular economy principles: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.
Most efforts to address climate change in coastal areas have focused on saving marine life, and from that perspective, local communities often look like the problem rather than a wellspring of potential solutions.
For philanthropic funders, in particular, this will require shaking off an embedded model of thinking. Philanthropy is built for fixing things, while an asset-based strategy requires supporting a community in developing its own adaptation solutions. It also requires a broader view of economic potential that connects land and sea assets in an integrated blue-green strategy.
If we look only at an island’s or coastal community’s blue economy assets, we’re ignoring the fact that many blue assets might be wiped out. Many of these places face ongoing shoreline erosion and frequent devastating storms that wreak havoc on coastal infrastructure. And fish are already migrating to more livable water temperatures, significantly reducing the sustainable catch in many parts of the world and putting some regions on course to lose key species.
Coastal communities need both land- and water-based development if they’re to survive. Options might include higher-ground renewable energy production, land-based aquaculture, ecotourism or research centers, as well as offshore renewables (wind, wave and solar), sustainable fisheries management and regenerative aquaculture businesses such as kelp and oyster farming.
Many places will need new infrastructure to take advantage of these opportunities, but if we want just outcomes, local communities must identify what is needed and participate in filling those needs. NGOs, governments and others seeking to help should take a collaborative approach that starts with helping communities assess their human and cultural capital and evaluate ways to build on those assets.
What counts as an asset: valuing cultural and human strengths
An asset-based inventory — a broad scan and a community mapping process that includes natural and cultural assets, Indigenous knowledge and practices, and social networks — provides a full accounting and valuation of a coastal community’s assets, starting with more typically overlooked ones such as Indigenous knowledge and governance practices and underused human resources.
The August IPCC report notes that Indigenous knowledge has long played a role in climatology. Peruvian fishermen named the periodic El Niño warm current in the Pacific. Inuit communities have contributed to climate history and conducted community-based monitoring across the Arctic. Indigenous Australian knowledge of climatic patterns has filled in sparse observational records. This kind of deep knowledge means local people are often in the best position to guide adaptation strategies. Indigenous marine fisheries governance, for example, is experiencing a revival throughout Oceania.
The report also observes that community approaches informed by Indigenous and local knowledge can accelerate the wide-scale behavior changes that are needed if we’re to adapt to and limit global warming. The Multiplier project cChange, for example, enabled the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries to reduce pressure on rapidly declining grouper fisheries by using a communications strategy that drew on generational fishing knowledge and engaged influential locals.
The diversity of the community is also an asset — one that’s often unrecognized due to local hierarchies and inequities. NGOs can play a powerful role in fully valuing human talent by co-creating an asset inventory process that ensures all community stakeholders can contribute to reimagining the local economy. By working with culturally informed and sensitive community partners that share the vision of full participation, NGOs can help foster not just engagement but also the license to act across all groups within the community — including those that are essential yet marginalized.
Women constitute nearly half of the global fisheries workforce. Female fishers contribute significantly to household income and food security, and they are often the mainstay of family and community sustenance. Yet they are vastly underrepresented in policy and decision-making and their contributions are devalued. By actively engaging women in sustainable development projects as decision-makers, entrepreneurs and workers, NGOs and industry partners can spur communities to take full advantage of the local talent pool. This is a worldwide opportunity for both social equity and economic resilience: The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that taking action to advance gender equality could add $13 trillion to global GDP in 2030.
NGOs can play a powerful role in fully valuing human talent by co-creating an asset inventory process that ensures all community stakeholders can contribute to reimagining the local economy.
Immigrant and Indigenous populations may be similarly devalued — even when efforts to create sustainable coastal economies require their participation. This results in adaptation and mitigation projects that stall out, are ineffective or exacerbate inequities.
Designing a just blue economy
A successful asset-based strategy is an inclusive one. It builds capacity and resilience throughout the community — that’s what makes it a compelling climate justice approach. It’s also a heavier lift than more typical adaption approaches, requiring cross-sector collaboration in three broad categories:
- Strong commitment from local and regional governments, with Indigenous or local leadership and self-governance capacity.
- A commitment to innovation and collaboration in developing adaptation plans.
- Blended financing — combinations of philanthropic, investment and loan capital — suited to project needs.
The asset-based model has a history in urban regeneration and rural economic development projects that combine human, natural, social and financial capital. It’s a novelty in the blue economy, though. Most efforts to address climate change in coastal areas have focused on saving marine life, and from that perspective, local communities often look like the problem rather than a wellspring of potential solutions. And economic alternatives brought in from outside have a history of extracting value from the community rather than building local capacity.
Shifting these approaches is well worth the effort. If the starting point for climate adaptation is defining a community’s problems, we’ll end up just plugging those holes, often with a prefab solution that isn’t a perfect fit. If the starting point is defining a community’s most abundant assets, we can find unexpected opportunities — and develop broader, more equitable solutions.
On a deeper level, there’s something powerful in the possibility of reinvention. If we can envision an appealing future that previously wasn’t even on the horizon, we can get past the numbing contemplation of climate disaster and get to work.