Taking climate justice seriously in the blue economy

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The latest intergovernmental panel on climate change report – a.k.a “red code for humanity“- full of reasons for people all over the world to worry about the increasingly hot world we live in. But coastal and island communities are literally on the front lines of climate change – they are already experiencing a rise in the level of sea and ecosystem collapses that compromise their physical and economic health, and they need help now to avoid devastation.

The question is, what kind of help?

We cannot solve the problem. Even though we drastically reduce emissions over the next 10 years, a significant level of climate change is induced. COP26 reflected this reality: in addition to preventing further warming, one of its main goals was to encourage adaptation to protect communities and natural habitats. We are at our last best opportunity to do so, and we cannot fall back on traditional development approaches or assume a stable set of economic opportunities. If we want to build a resilient society 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 sustainable future. Industries, NGOs, impact investors and governments should help, but not in the usual way of trying to make up for perceived community deficits. Instead, cross-sector collaborations should focus on fully valuing existing human, natural and cultural assets and using them in accordance 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 to changes in the policy environment. They are also inherently top-down and tend to set aside locally entrenched cultural strengths and reinforce long-standing social inequalities or leave them unaddressed.

Asset-based development begins by assessing the full range of established community benefits, and then focuses on harnessing those strengths to create sustainable growth, a cleaner environment and stronger regional economic ties. This is a better strategy for climate adaptation in coastal communities for both practical and ethical reasons: it avoids the risks of trying to create something new from scratch in a rapidly changing situation. This gives more control in the hands of the community. And the emphasis on resilience naturally leads to the principles of the circular economy: designing waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in service and regenerating natural systems.

Most efforts to tackle climate change in coastal areas have focused on saving marine life, and from this perspective, local communities often look like the problem rather than a source of potential solutions.

For philanthropic funders, in particular, this will require getting rid of an integrated model of thinking. Philanthropy is built to fix things, while an asset-based strategy requires supporting a community in developing its own adaptation solutions. It also requires a broader vision of the economic potential that connects land and sea assets in an integrated blue-green strategy.

If we only look at the blue economy assets of an island or coastal community, we ignore the fact that many blue assets could be wiped out. Many of these places face continued erosion of shorelines and frequent devastating storms that wreak havoc on coastal infrastructure. And the fish are already migrating at more habitable water temperatures, dramatically reducing sustainable catches in many parts of the world and putting some regions on track to lose key species.

Coastal communities need both terrestrial and aquatic development if they are to survive. Options could include renewable energy production at altitude, terrestrial aquaculture, ecotourism or research centers, as well as offshore renewable energies (wind, wave and solar), sustainable fisheries management and fishing companies. regenerative aquaculture such as kelp and oyster farming.

Many places will need new infrastructure to take advantage of these opportunities, but if we are to achieve fair results, local communities must identify what is needed and participate in meeting those needs. NGOs, governments and others seeking to help should take a collaborative approach that begins by helping communities assess their human and cultural capital and assess ways to leverage these assets.

What counts as an asset: valuing cultural and human assets

An asset-based inventory – a holistic analysis and community mapping process that includes natural and cultural assets, indigenous knowledge and practices, and social networks – provides comprehensive accounting and valuation of a coastal community’s assets, by starting with those that are generally overlooked, such as Indigenous knowledge and governance practices and underutilized human resources.

August IPCC report notes that indigenous knowledge has long played a role in climatology. Peruvian fishermen named the periodic warm current El Niño in the Pacific. Inuit communities have contributed to the history of the climate and have conducted community-based monitoring in the Arctic. Indigenous Australian knowledge of climate models has filled sparse observational records. This kind of in-depth knowledge means that local people are often in the best position to guide coping strategies. Indigenous governance of marine fisheries, for example, is experiencing a revival throughout Oceania.

The report also observes that community-based approaches informed by indigenous and local knowledge can accelerate the large-scale behavior changes that are necessary if we are to adapt and limit global warming. The Multiplier project cEdit, for example, enabled the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries to reduce pressure on rapidly declining grouper fisheries by using a communications strategy that draws on generational fishing knowledge and engages influential locals.

The diversity of the community is also an asset – an asset that is often overlooked due to local hierarchies and inequalities. NGOs can play an important role in fully valuing human talent by co-creating an asset inventory process that ensures that all actors in the community can help reinvent the local economy. By working with culturally informed and sensitive community partners who share a vision of full participation, NGOs can help foster not only engagement, but also empowerment to act through all groups within the community, including those who are essential but marginalized.

Women constitute almost half of the world’s fishing workforce. Women fishermen contribute significantly to household income and food security, and they are often the backbone of family and community livelihoods. Yet they are grossly under-represented 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 industrial partners can engage communities to take full advantage of the local talent pool. This is a global opportunity for social equity and economic resilience: The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that taking action to advance gender equality could add $ 13 trillion to global GDP by 2030.

NGOs can play an important role in fully valuing human talent by co-creating an asset inventory process that ensures that all actors in the community can help reinvent the local economy.

Immigrant and indigenous populations can be likewise devalued, even when efforts to create sustainable coastal economies require their participation. This results in adaptation and mitigation projects that stagnate, are ineffective or exacerbate inequalities.

Designing a just blue economy

A successful asset-based strategy is inclusive. It builds capacity and resilience across the community – that’s what makes it a compelling approach to climate justice. It is also a heavier task than more traditional adaptation approaches, requiring intersectoral collaboration in three broad categories:

  • A strong commitment from local and regional governments, with indigenous or local leadership and a capacity for self-government.
  • A commitment to innovation and collaboration in the development of adaptation plans.
  • Blended finance – combinations of philanthropic, investment and loan capital – tailored to the needs of the project.

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 new to the blue economy, however. Most efforts to tackle climate change in coastal areas have focused on saving marine life, and from this perspective, local communities often look like the problem rather than a source of potential solutions. And economic alternatives brought in from outside tend to extract value from the community rather than build local capacity.

Changing these approaches is worth the effort. If the starting point of climate adaptation is to define a community’s problems, we’ll end up plugging those holes, often with a pre-fab solution that doesn’t quite fit. If the starting point is to define the most abundant assets of a community, we can find unexpected opportunities and develop broader and more equitable solutions.

On a deeper level, there is something powerful about the possibility of reinvention. If we can imagine an attractive future that was not even on the horizon, we can move beyond numb contemplation of climate catastrophe and get down to business.


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