Many cool heads for a hot and unequal world: reflections on adaptation research and the social sciences

In a 2012 editorial in Global Environmental Change “Cool heads for a hot world – Social sciences under a changing sky“, Arun Agrawal, Maria Lemos, Ben Orlove, and Jesse Ribot delineated three spaces for the social sciences to contribute to climate change research and action (theorise, problematize, inform policy).

The year they wrote this, I was wrestling with my PhD data on differential vulnerability, climate variability, and farmer adaptation in rural Rajasthan. I was trained in Botany and Natural Resource Management and was now negotiating peoples’ memories and experiences of water scarcity, having long conversations on drought management, changing rural livelihoods, and the vagaries of smallholder soyabean cultivation. And all of it, against the backdrop of climate variability and change in the wettest part of India’s driest state. The editorial with its three ‘summons’ and focus on interdisciplinary enquiries was heartening to read. As an environmental social scientist, it signalled to me the importance of grounded, longitudinal adaptation research.

Today, in 2021, almost a decade later, we stand at another crucial juncture. We are five years past the Paris Agreement, a momentous juncture in global climate governance, which finally recognised the scale and inequity of climate impacts and risks, and proposed funding adaptation more proactively. The Paris Agreement also titillated and confused with a global goal on adaptation – exasperatingly difficult to define and hence, inconveniently mirage-like. Just when you think you have a metric to assess adaptation progress and effectiveness, a new one pops up, most often with a whole new slew of indicators and ideas, and governments, civil society, and funders scramble to catch up. The Paris Agreement also articulated periodic checks and balances to ascertain how we’re moving towards the elusive goal(s) – the five-year Global Stocktakes, the first one scheduled for 2023.

As one looks ahead to the stocktakes and looks back to the decades of adaptation scholarship, it seems timely to revisit the ‘Cool heads for a hot world’ editorial. Did the adaptation research community take on any of the provocations it laid out? Where did we go and where are we now? Whose solutions got picked up and whose were silenced? Did we do better on understanding vulnerability let alone reducing it? I think we progressed on some and not so much on others. In a series of three blogs, I lay out how recent papers have helped answer some questions while in other spaces, we’re still asking the same questions asked in the early 2000s.

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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