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Impact Story: connecting theory and practice to overcome barriers to adaptation 

Around the world, coastal communities are exposed to the impacts of climate change, for example sea level rise and coastal erosion. But local governments are often politically and economically constrained in their abilities to implement timely and needed adaptation measures. These constraints can restrict adaptation options to practices that are too little and too late, or even result in measures that are maladaptive for the community. Researcher Chad Boda has worked with the City of Flagler Beach in Florida, USA from 2013-2018 to help turn theory into practice for how to overcome barriers to effective adaptation.
Flagler Beach. Photo: Chad Boda.
Flagler Beach. Photo: Chad Boda.

Flagler Beach, a small city of around 4500 people, is located on the Atlantic coast of the US state of Florida. It faces many climate hazards such as flooding and coastal erosion, caused by tropical cyclones in short term and by sea level rise in the long term. A major problem for the city, and indeed for many other American cities, is that it has neither the financial means nor the political power to decide over their own coast and infrastructure, preventing them from developing and implementing needed adaptation measures.

Chad Bod, researcher at LUCSUS, started working collaboratively with the city in 2013 to help politicians and decision makers to identify gaps, limits and silences of current policies relating to climate change adaptation in the city, and to develop a strategy for improving these policies.

Together with the city, he took stock of people, critical habitats, and infrastructure that were exposed to flooding, storms and erosion in Flagler, while also considering people’s safety, economic factors, recreation and historical aspects. Based on this stocktaking, he helped identify what adaptation measures were most desirable and suitable for Flagler, in particular the need to restore and sustainably manage its sand dunes to help naturally adapt the environment to climate change, including supporting the city to develop a revegetation and restoration plan for the critically eroded beach dunes.

 – It became very clear through my work with Flagler Beach that barriers to effective adaptation are not only very real, but also the norm. Today, cities like Flagler Beach are not in a position to pursue sustainable adaptations such as the restoration of coastal dunes, due largely to the double burden of economic constraints and political hierarchies. I came to realise that if small coastal cities are going to overcome these barriers, they will need to build and maintain capacity for collective agency capable of forcing policy changes at higher-levels of decision making. Vulnerable cities need to be ready to act when opportunities for change arise, be they political opportunities created in the wake of disaster, or new economic opportunities to apply for external funding for environmental projects.

Collective Action Strategy

One way to build collective agency and overcome barriers to adaptation is to develop a collective action strategy fit for that particular context, according to Chad Boda. Such a strategy would need to include an identification of local adaptation needs, as well as a thorough identification of what barriers and constraints hinder adaptation. It also needs to contain an assessment of the city or community’s capacity for collective action: do individual and groups have the knowledge, the possibility and resources to exert political or social pressure on decision makers at higher institutional levels?

– Developing a long-term political mobilization strategy can help clarify what policies need to change and at what level, say county, state or federal, and can guide cities such as Flagler Beach to use their available resources wisely by working strategically. Such a strategy would also help identify which actors, such as state agencies and elected representatives, any collective action campaigns would need to focus on for advocating change. These policies and related actors become the “targets” for collective action, that is, to whom the demands for change are directed, says Chad Boda.

Impact of Chad Boda’s work

Through his collaborative work, Chad Boda has helped initiate a process to help Flagler Beach build a collective action strategy to pursue their restoration of the sand dunes. His work in the region contributes to both theory and practice regarding how to work with, plan for, and achieve transformative adaptation that is suited to local needs and desired by the community.

– In an ideal world, every city and community should be able to pursue the adaptation measures which suit their environment best, and should not have to rely on collective action and mobilization. However, today, many government and private actors push for cheaper, more technical adaptation solutions that might save money but cause harm in the local community, for example by building concrete seawalls. In my work, I have tried to identify how a city under constraints best can go forward by utilizing current possibilities to cultivate local capacity for collective action.

A model to design a collective action strategy

As a direct result of his work, Chad Boda, together with researcher Anne Jerneck, Professor at LUCSUS, has developed a general outline for designing a collective action strategy for adaptation fit for context.

Model

  1. Identify local adaptation needs: This involves both taking stock of people, habitats, and infrastructure that are exposed to climate-related hazards. Safety, economy and cultural and historical aspects need to be considered. This evaluation can help inform which  kinds of adaptation are deemed necessary or desirable, and which should take priority when multiple adaption pathways are possible.
  2. Identify constraints hindering the local adaptation needs. Barriers can be structural and stem from political hierarchies, lack of appropriate funds, or from lack of knowledge of the issue at hand orof collective will. Overcoming these constraints will require local organizing that can lead to political pressure from collectively acting individuals to force adjustments in policies and priorities at higher scales of social organization.
  3. The third step is to assess the local community’s capacity for collective action. Both internal and external capacities are important for a social group to act collectively, and they often interact. For example, an external shock (e.g., natural disaster) may create a political opportunity which leads to an increase in the availability of resources to be mobilized by a given community, thus increasing their internal capacity as well. 
  4. The first three steps can be combined to design a collective action strategy which fits the particular community’s context. Local adaptation needs have at this point been identified, as have the constraints preventing the realization of these needs in the local context. This knowledge helps clarify which specific policies, at which level of social organization (e.g., county, state, federal) needs to change. This also helps clarify which actors (e.g., state agencies or elected representatives) are responsible for these policies, and thus which specific agencies or actors a collective action campaign should aim to influence. Against these needs, local capacity for collective action can be assessed and strategically cultivated to enhance the community’s ability to take advantage of opportunities that arise in the future.

Download the article: Enabling local adaptation to climate change: towards collective action in Flagler Beach, Florida, USA at springer.com.

Type of impact beyond academia: understanding and awareness, policy and environmental impact.

Seawall in Flagler Beach. Photo: Chad Boda.
Seawall in Flagler Beach. Photo: Chad Boda.

Interview with Chad Boda 

What do you see as the biggest impact from your research in Flagler Beach?

From a practical, needs-based perspective, I would say the most important part of my work has been working with creating and implementing the re-vegetation plan for the city. This plan is not only an important adaptation for the city, it also serves as a mechanism for bringing citizens and elected officials in city together around the adaptation issue, where they can further learn and discuss how they want to address erosion and sea level rise.

What has work meant to you professionally and personally?

Professionally, it allowed me to understand how complex change really happens; to really understand the barriers faced by communities, you need a concrete problem to work with. You need to see it in real life. Not just as something abstract.
Personally, the research and work have meant a lot to me since Flagler Beach is the town I grew up in. Before I started, I had a personal interest in the city, which drew me to the place. I of course found it fulfilling to work in an environment I care about not only professionally, but personally as well. 

What are your best tips for making an impact, both beyond academia and scientifically? 

My best tip is to start from where those you hope to collaborate with actually are (e.g. in terms of their knowledge of the issue and on-going activities on the community), and not from where you hope they would be or from where you as a research would prefer to start. This is all too common for researchers, to come in with a predefined idea of a problem. Instead, you should start with the effort that these people have already given, and help build a better approach from there.

Then you should work with as many relevant stakeholders as possible. It is important that you try to understand the relationships between them, who is involved and which groups disagree with each other. The more people you work with, the broader the view you get of the issue.

Finally, take people’s frustrations seriously. Beneath the frustration and anger, they are trying to express serious concerns. And most importantly, never discount people because they do not agree with you. This can be hard sometimes since for example you might come across people who are climate change deniers. But as I said before, it is important that we as researchers start from where our collaborators are, and not from where we want them to be.

 

About the researcher

Chad Boda

Chad Boda is a recent PhD and Sustainability Scientist with a passion for researching and teaching on issues of environmental conservation and sustainable development. His PhD focused on the possibilities and constraints around sustainable coastal development in Florida, and his current interests span a wide spectrum from the philosophy of science and methodology to action-oriented and collaborative case study research.

Read more about Chad Boda's research and work

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