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  • Ruby Grantham

Why metrics matter for just adaptation

As we face a future of increasing climate variability, two things are certain, not everyone will be impacted in the same way and we must adapt. Insufficient mitigation of climate change means that threats to human wellbeing are now unavoidable and acute global inequalities render some regions and groups more vulnerable than others (IPCC, 2014). Moving forwards, whether this problematic status quo is reinforced or transformed depends on the decisions we make now about how to respond to climate change (Thaler et al., 2018). Therefore, we must be critical of adaptation strategies and in particular how they [re]produce differential vulnerabilities and exacerbate power asymmetries (Thomas and Warner, 2019). Climate adaptation offers a means to protect things that matter to us but is also an opportunity for major social change and a directional shift towards more equitable futures (Lonsdale et al., 2015). Climate adaptation is thus an issue of justice that requires ethical decision-making.

Like much decision-making, adaptation decisions involve choices and trade-offs about how to allocate scarce resources to achieve certain outcomes. Underpinning adaptation decision-making are the metrics that enable adaptation strategies to be compared and monitored. Metrics act as indicators of decision-making priorities, they parameterise the problem and solution space and determine what formally constitutes effective adaptation. Thus, by shaping adaptation decision-making, metric choices have implications for justice. In this blog we discuss three key aspects of metric choice important for just adaptation: 1) what metrics are used, 2) who decides, and 3) how metrics are measured.

First, the metrics used in adaptation decision-making matter for the perceived fairness of the impacts of adaptation (distributive justice). Human wellbeing comprises of material (assets, welfare, standards of living), relational (social and human relations) and subjective (perceptions and values) dimensions (White, 2010), all of which may potentially be impacted by processes of change associated with adaptation. The metrics used in adaptation decisions determine which types of impact are accounted for. For example, hedonic pricing models of local housing can be useful to understand the economic impacts of adaptation but do not provide information on mental health impacts. Poor metric choice can lead to incorrect perceptions of progress, create perverse incentive structures and risk creating new sources of vulnerability under the guise of adaptation (Eriksen et al., 2021). Ensuring that metrics reflect the multiple ways people are impacted by adaptation is a prerequisite to properly evaluating the costs and benefits of adaptation strategies in decision-making. No single metric can be used to assess human wellbeing and so a suite of metrics are needed to capture the diverse ways that adaptation strategies impact people.

Second, who decides what metrics to include will affect whether adaptation decision-making is perceived to be a fair process (procedural justice). Metric choice reflects power structures that determine the types of knowledge and expertise that are considered valid and whose priorities are valued in adaptation decisions (Eriksen et al., 2015). For instance, top-down processes of metric selection give authority to policy-makers and experts to make normative judgements about what matters in adaptation. Differences in values and vulnerabilities mean people will be differently impacted by adaptation strategies and will therefore have different perceptions of apposite metrics. For example, an adaptation strategy may differently impact local residents and business owners and therefore certain metrics may better represent the interests of one group over the other. Inclusive and participatory processes to select metrics are needed to ensure diverse stakeholder values are reflected in how adaptation strategies are compared and evaluated. Critically, diverse stakeholders should also have the opportunity to influence how different principles of justice (i.e., equity, equality and need) underpin adaptation decision-making, which in turn affect what metrics are perceived to be most fitting.

Third, how data are aggregated has implications for the visibility of diversity and inequalities in metrics and how they are attended to in adaptation decision-making (distributional justice). Metrics often require aggregating data to provide summary measures with which to evaluate trends and relationships. Aggregation removes noise but at the same time leads to a loss of information, particularly around variability. Therefore, the scale at which data are aggregated determines at what level a metric can be used to evaluate a relationship. For instance, if individual data on adaptation impacts are aggregated into a community level metric, it may not be possible to reliably infer how women, as a sub-group, are impacted. The social scale of metrics is particularly important for supporting principles of equity in adaptation decision-making; if data on multiple social groups are aggregated into a single metric, the needs of vulnerable groups maybe invisible and inequalities reinforced (Klonschinski, 2021).

In summary, there is a pressing need to adapt to climate change and how we adapt has implications for just futures. Foundational to just adaptation are the metrics used to guide adaptation decision-making and monitor progress. Appropriate metrics will depend on the nature of the threat, the affected social system and how justice is conceptualised. Specifically, when choosing adaptation metrics, we should consider the aspects of human wellbeing made visible by metrics, whose voices influence which metrics are included and the appropriate scale of aggregation to detect inequalities.


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