Participation in climate change adaptation - Is it happening and what is needed?

In the new report, IPCC makes a strong call for meaningful participation. Despite of the strong evidence justifying this call, the efforts to implement it have fallen short so far.

In the 6th IPCC Assessment Report Working Group II “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, there is ample evidence of the important role of participation with respect to climate justice and transformative governance. The report’s Summary for Policy Makers goes into detail about the characteristics of the participation needed. It is encouraging to see that the report recognizes the need for policy interventions, such as rights based approaches focusing on meaningful participation of the most vulnerable groups to reduce structural vulnerabilities by addressing inequities.

The report highlights examples of inclusive approaches that relate to informal or under-served areas, indigenous and local knowledge, and women’s and youth leadership and identifies non-inclusive governance as a driver or maladaptation . The report also lists several approaches including multi-stakeholder, co-learning platforms, community-based adaptation and participatory scenario planning. Repeatedly, it calls for meaningful participation, especially in respect to vulnerable groups. 

The report identifies meaningful participation in governance, design and implementation as an enabler of adaptation strategies, such as a rights based approach. The emphasis on the different phases throughout the adaptation strategy development is important as participation has a role in each phase. 

What exactly is meant by meaningful participation? In the context of adaptation, is the word meaningful used similarly to the way it is used later in the report in the wider context of participation in society, e.g. “the result of personal freedoms, human agency, self-efficacy, the ability to self-actualize, dignity and relatedness to others”? If so, then, meaningful participation in adaptation, especially when focused on vulnerable groups, is requires changes also in the broader structures and institutions in society. If citizens are simply informed, consulted, or seen as “end-users” to provide feedback or test expert-driven solutions, then this does not meet the criteria of meaningful. Often such processes reinforce the status quo and do not address the root causes which drive climate risk which adaptation processes aim to address.

Despite the evidence and need for such interventions, they have not translated into a widespread use of meaningful participation of citizens, civil society organisations, and communities in urban climate change adaptation. Participation is not yet an inherent part of urban climate change adaptation. We analyzed 902 individual adaptation measures in large cities across the world and less than 20% of included citizens taking an active role [1]. Most of these municipal adaptation measures foster citizens’ actions either by providing information about climate change and adaptation possibilities, by laws and regulations, by providing (financial) incentives.

These findings are in line with a number of studies by other authors published after the IPCC 5th Assessment Report [2-4]. In these studies, there is a basic agreement that prevailing governance settings and socio-economic settings are not conducive to meaningful participatory approaches. Limiting factors are e.g. expert-driven planning procedures, often separating “objective” expert knowledge from citizens’ “opinions” (often referred to as technocratic approaches); top-down governance, where the states governs predominantly  via legislation and the provision of public services; (semi-)authoritarian systems with limited possibilities for deliberation; or setting that (knowingly or unintentionally) exclude certain groups or individual from being heard.  

Based on research into participation within the context of disaster risk reduction, meaningful participation requires empowerment through e.g. capacity building, capability development, recognising different perspectives and knowledge, leadership training, and sharing of decision making etc. This, in turn, is meaningless if disconnected from participation in a broader societal context due to the fact that adaptation must be mainstreamed into all parts of everyday life and society. And although participation is often kept apolitical, empowerment is political as it requires changes in processes and structures related to the status quo. Participation is needed to alter both the way that actors relate to each other and the distribution of power. Only then will it support equitable outcomes in adaptation, but also in development.

In summary, we currently fall short of what is needed for participation in adaptation, not only in terms of the amount of participation being carried out, but also the quality of participation being carried out. In this situation, capacity building of various actors, investments of time and resources, changes in attitudes, and decentralisation of decision-making and management power [5] are needed, alongside the recognition that meaningful participation cannot be confined within certain policy processes if adaptation is to be mainstreamed to support equitable and sustainable development outcomes. 

This is the second post in our AR6 WGII-related blog series where we highlight some interesting new approaches in the field of climate risk and adaptation research. Read the previous post from here. In the next post, we will talk about risk assessments and adaptation planning. 

Johannes Klein works in Geological Survey of Finland and regularly collaborates with our research group. Heidi Tuhkanen is a doctoral researcher in UEP.


[1] Klein, J., Araos, M., Karimo, A., Heikkinen, M., Ylä-Anttila, T., & Juhola, S. (2018). The role of the private sector and citizens in urban climate change adaptation: Evidence from a global assessment of large cities. Global Environmental Change, 53, 127-136.  (open access)

[2] Chu, E. K. (2016). The Governance of Climate Change Adaptation Through Urban Policy Experiments. Environmental Policy and Governance, 26(6), 439-451.

[3] Hegger, D. L., Mees, H. L., Driessen, P. P., & Runhaar, H. A. (2017). The Roles of Residents in Climate Adaptation: A systematic review in the case of The Netherlands. Environmental Policy and Governance. 

[4] Westman, L.Linda, and Castán Broto, V.Vanesa Castán Broto. (2018) "Climate governance through partnerships: A study of 150 urban initiatives in China." Global Environmental Change 50 (2018): 212-221.

[5] Geekiyanage, D., Fernando, T. and Keraminiyage, K. (2020). Assessing the state of the art in community engagement for participatory decision-making in disaster risk-sensitive urban development. International journal of disaster risk reduction, 51, p.101847.