How climate change made the development agenda

How did climate change rise up the agenda of the UK's environment and development agencies? Oxfam's John Magrath reflects on the impact of the 'Up in Smoke' coalition and its reports, now collected in a new Zed Books publication.

Guest blog by
12 August 2014

Extreme events like forest fires, droughts and storms threaten sustainable development. (Photo: Global Water Partnership)

The recent release of Climate Change and Human Development, endorsed by Oxfam International executive director Winnie Byanyima, offers an interesting opportunity to reflect on how policy change happens. The book compiles several reports released between 2003 and 2009 by what became known as the 'Up in Smoke' coalition of some 25 UK environment and development agencies, including Oxfam and the Internation Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

The book's message is now widely accepted: climate change represents a fundamental threat to both human development and the environment. We see evidence of this more and more often in our work. But this was not always so obvious; climate change used to actually rank low among the institutional priorities of several member agencies.

So what changed, and how?

At the turn of the new millennium, environment agencies 'did' polar bears and development agencies 'did' people. The British government was either confused by this or found it a convenient excuse to do relatively little about climate change. Officials at the Department for International Development (DfID) tended to stress what they saw as the apparent incompatibility between what environment and development NGOs wanted. Environment agencies were more vocal about climate change, but frustrated that development agencies were less engaged; development agencies were frustrated that climate change was more about nature than humanity.
 
In stepped Saleemul Huq and Hannah Reid from IIED and Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to bridge this divide. They convened a series of discussions between environment and development agencies to work from the common ground of a shared threat. The result was the 'Up in Smoke' reports, which recognised commonalities and described experiences in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
 
These reports were probably the first of their kind – non-technical, story- and experience-based – and they were widely read. Tom Tanner, now a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, emailed Up in Smoke colleagues to react to the book's publication: "I thought I'd share with you all just how many times on my travels I hear people referring to these reports as the main trigger for their subsequent work on climate change and development. Great to have them published together.
 
"We are already surrounded by a sleeping architecture of better ways to organise our economies, communities and livelihoods."
 
At the turn of the new millennium, environment agencies 'did' polar bears and development agencies 'did' people
The book sums up more than a decade of experience accumulated by environment and development agencies in assisting people on the ground to cope with the impacts of climate change and begin to find ways to adapt. It covers numerous topics including food and farming, disasters, women and conflict, and includes Oxfam programme examples, case studies and references from South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Niger, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Tajikistan, China and Vietnam. The collection ends with a chapter on green growth, concluding that 'we are already surrounded by a sleeping architecture of better ways to organise our economies, communities and livelihoods'.
 
As scientific certainty grew and impacts became more noticeable, climate change would have climbed the agenda of agencies anyway. However, the decision of then Oxfam policy director Phil Bloomer to sign up to the first report in 2003 helped push climate change up the Oxfam agenda as never before. Oxfam had policies and clearance to speak out on climate change, but had done little in practice. Being part of the group, having a reason to seek out climate change-related case studies, and adding the organisation's logo helped raise the profile of the issue in other development agency members, too.
 
There are two main reasons why the Up in Smoke group was successful. The first was that it was convened by two institutions, IIED and NEF, and several individuals that, both as organisations and as people, had the trust of all parties.
 
They organised and advised with commitment, care and a delicate touch, using meetings not to dwell on problems but to talk about possibilities. A second reason is that, paradoxically, being part of the group was not an institutionally driven priority but rather the opposite; the individuals who met could operate, to a degree, outside existing institutional boundaries or priorities. They were not mandated to create new policy but helped to make real policies that had until then existed mostly on paper.
 
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