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What does it take to build climate resilience — especially among the world’s most vulnerable?

- November 2, 2018
Honduran migrants in a caravan heading toward the United States walk from San Pedro Tapanatepec to Santiago Niltepec, Oaxaca State, Mexico, on Tuesday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Climate change is an “unseen driver” behind the thousands of Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants heading toward the U.S. border, one recent article suggested. Food insecurity and poverty in Central America come not just from violence and corruption but also from worsening droughts and changing weather patterns.

And Hurricane Michael in early October, perhaps the most powerful storm to hit the United States since 1969, is another stark piece of evidence that our world is fast approaching — or has reached — a “tipping point.” The enduring environmental damage from climate change is likely to have broad social implications. But who is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change? And how do we best support these people in times of climate crisis?

Environmental catastrophes have far-reaching consequences, from food insecurity to global migration. Globally, more intense droughts and erratic rainfall make it difficult for farmers to sustain sufficient food production needs. Decreasing crop productivity and corresponding market effects ultimately mean that access to nutritious food is an increasing challenge in poorer countries, but particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Recent U.N. reports, for instance, indicate that the numbers regarding global hunger are getting worse, not better.

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Global conversations among policymakers and academics are shifting to focus not only on reducing the risks of climate change but also on preparing to respond to our changing environmental needs on a global scale. The ability of an individual or society to respond to the effects of climate change and adequately prepare for future climate crises is called climate resilience. However, because of social inequalities, some sectors of society are more equipped to build climate resilience than others.

Who is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

Marginalized groups such as the disabled, the elderly, children, women and the poor are more likely to experience pronounced effects of climate change. These groups often lack access to resources to help them adapt and prepare for events like drought, severe weather and flooding.

For those who make their living off the land, the effects of climate change can be devastating. Farmers not only struggle with the loss of income, but also rarely have the financial resources and social networks necessary to recover and prepare for the next environmental crisis.

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Efforts are underway to make climate information services — like weather forecasts — more accessible, which would help the world’s poorest farmers prepare for climate-related events. The idea is that equipping farmers with better information will help improve production and save crops, fostering resilience under changing climate conditions.

Policymakers think that these efforts will improve household food security. But what are the best ways to share this type of information, and make sure it gets to the most vulnerable members of society?

Does access to climate and weather information foster resilience among farmers? 

In our research, my colleagues and I studied how vulnerable populations access climate and weather information. Our work looks at climate information services, adoption of new farming practices and household food security.

Here’s how we gathered this data. In June and July 2014, in four village communities in Kenya and Senegal, we surveyed a random sample of 100 farmers and conducted focus group discussions with more than 200 farmers. We asked farmers about sources of information they received, different farming practices and technologies they used, and when their households ran out of food.

Our research team worked with a development program called Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). CCAFS works to build resilience among farmers in developing countries, including through programs that foster climate information services.

Climate information can be more powerful via people — not phones

Our research revealed key takeaways. In areas with better access to climate information, more farmers adopted new, climate-smart farming strategies to help their crops grow despite the negative effects of climate change.

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The method used to communicate this type of information was important. There was a big push to share climate information via mobile phones — but not all farmers identified mobiles as a preferred tool for receiving climate information. Instead, many farmers wanted to hear climate information directly from Ministry of Agriculture extension officers who work in communities to promote good farming practices.

An important difference between sharing climate information via phones and via face-to-face discussions with extension officers is the ability to have a two-way conversation. When farmers interact with extension officers, they can ask questions. This was especially true for women, who were more likely than men to rely on direct communication with extension officers for information regarding most climate-smart agriculture practices for field preparation, pest control and manure management.

Although this study is limited in scope, focusing on four small communities in two countries, it speaks to possible solutions to a larger problem. When people are able to access and engage climate information, they are able to make meaning out of that knowledge and apply it to improve their situation — but they need to be able to access that information in the first place.

Effective communication and information updates about the rapidly intensifying conditions of Hurricane Michael no doubt saved lives. And better information about how best to cultivate crops under Central America’s shifting weather patterns may have alleviated some of the poverty and desperation experienced by many of the families now in the migrant caravan.

Recognizing that different sectors of society access information from different sources, that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, may prove critical to building a world that is better prepared for the risks of climate change.

Chesney McOmber is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida.