New Research - Adaptation requires overcoming social conflicts

08 April 2016

A Perspective article, published by GREEN-WIN researchers from the Global Climate Forum (GCF) in the journal Nature Climate Change, highlights that overcoming social conflicts associated to shared resources will be key in adapting to the impacts of climate change. The article shows that decades of research on the commons, resources belonging to or affecting entire communities and most well-known through the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom, has accumulated promising ways forward for societies to overcome such conflicts. Solving such social conflicts, or social dilemmas, is at the core of the GREEN-WIN approach of identifying win-win strategies for climate action.

“Many of the most difficult challenges we face as societies in adapting to climate change relate to the governance of shared resources such as water aquifers, river basins and urban areas in floodplains,” said Dr. Alexander Bisaro, the lead author of the study.  “Around the world, cities and regions are struggling with how to co-operate to reduce environmental impacts. Take coastal mega-cities, like Jakarta or Shanghai, where sea-level rise is fast becoming a serious problem. If groundwater extraction would be reduced in these cities, this would be a huge step forward in reducing the risk of sea-level rise. Social scientists have been grappling with groundwater management for decades, and have insights that should be the basis for adaptation policy and research.”

Climate change is expected to make conflicts over these shared resources worse, and create conflicts where none existed, through rising sea-levels, increasing water scarcity and increasing temperatures. It is therefore essential that societies learn from the experiences with such shared resources gained over decades, to inform policy and research on adaptation.

Co-author Jochen Hinkel, Lead Author of the coastal chapter of the Working Group 2 contribution to the latest IPCC report, adds: “While climate research has placed a lot of emphasis on future scenarios, societies needing to adapt would probably be better-served by strategies to resolve resource conflicts. And this is exactly what the commons literature provides.”

There is reason for optimism in this approach. Decades of commons research has shown that social conflicts can be overcome by communities in conducive social and political contexts. For example, providing information on water use through metering, and allowing water users to take part in decisions on water use, increases the chances they will co-operate to maintain the resource over the long-term. The researchers argue that these insights should inform adaptation research and policy to help societies establish the political and social contexts needed to overcome the social conflicts brought on by climate change.

The article can be accessed at: