Central American countries learn to anticipate the future to plan for climate change

Central American countries learn to anticipate the future to plan for climate change

One of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change is learning to get out of its straitjacket and explore its futures, although it still does not know them well.

Written by Diego Arguedas Ortiz for UCI

Central America faces great challenges in its efforts to adapt to climate change: drought in the Dry Corridor, agricultural losses and the precarious situation of millions of farmers occupies a prominent place in national agendas.

When our eyes are set on the present, we run the risk of forgetting that things can change. A research project with strong ties to Central American countries is trying to help decision makers in the region avoid this trap when planning for climate through a focus on anticipating futures and improving climate governance.

The region is making significant efforts in planning for a future under climate change, explains Marieke Veeger, a scenarios and policy researcher for CCAFS, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, based at the University for International Cooperation (UCI), who is studying the role of anticipation and the imagination of plausible futures in the formulation of climate change plans as part of RE-IMAGINE, a CCAFS sister project hosted by Utrecht University and the BNP Paribas Foundation.

In most of the cases studied in Central America, the formulation of a policy is based on a rigorous analysis of the present problem, and usually contains an anticipatory practice, such as vulnerability or risk assessments. However, these sorts of practices have their limitations. When they look to the future, they do not sufficiently consider uncertainty. On top of this, physical climate components usually dominate.

“Most climate change adaptation plans take climate scenarios into account – such as precipitation or temperature variations – but few consider that socio-economic, environmental or political aspects can also change, such as migration, consumption habits and management of natural resources,” says Veeger.

Anticipate the future

So how can we account for what is still uncertain? For that, the UCI team, CCAFS and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are working with countries in the region to create future scenarios: multiple stories of the future told through words, models or images. To do this, experts, leaders and officials of a country identify the factors that will generate the most change and have the most impact on the future of agriculture and food and nutritional security. Based on these factors, they begin to imagine and design scenarios. The aspiration is that within countries there are people and teams that are able to do this iteratively once they become familiar with the method.

Between October 2018 and May 2019, three workshops were held in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to create scenarios that imagine different futures in which the three countries are facing the climate crisis. The events were carried out as part of Common Journey, a project led by CIAT and financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The project aims to develop capacities in climate-smart agriculture (CSA) in Central America to strengthen policies and decision-making for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

In practice 

At first, Miguel Gallardo had his reservations. While the group he was assigned to in the workshop was listing the factors of change and organizing them by how important and uncertain they were, he felt the method did not fit him. “I was wondering how we were going to link all these subjective elements to an integrated projection”, recalls Gallardo, climate change specialist at the El Salvador Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN). He was used to climate models with clear data and specific time frames, such as Representative Concentration Paths (RCP) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This was different.

He soon realized that there was no need to have exact projections of rains or heat waves. It was instead about understanding how something happening in the future could affect these projections. Gallardo quickly found its value. He had to work on water management, which was explored with two different angles: how centralized water supply would be and the kind of economic development that benefited from it. In a scenario he created with his group of eight people, they imagined a service economy and one focused on agro-industrial development, as is the current trend. They then had to imagine what these two economies would be like with either concentrated or distributed use of water resources. The process had Gallardo convinced, and he is now considering proposing it for the development of climate strategies in El Salvador.

The same work was happening at other tables and in the end, 12 scenarios emerged for El Salvador, along with many others for Honduras and Guatemala. The result covered not only aspirational scenarios but also some disastrous ones.

For example, the coordinator of the Climate Change Unit at the Guatemala Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), Martín Leal, imagined a scenario where the state had given control of water to private companies. “[In that future], if you needed water, you had to pay a company for access. This made food more expensive, the poor poorer, and the rich richer,” recalls the official. Nevertheless, these pessimistic scenarios are particularly useful, says Manuel Sosa, Deputy Director of Forest Management, Watersheds and Irrigation at the El Salvador Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG). “If you know something will happen in two months that might make you sick, you can prepare yourself and take steps to prevent it,” he explains.

From the future to the present

Favorable and negative scenarios emerge from each workshop, both of which help buffer a given policy. For example, a public policy to manage water by 2050 should be successful in all the scenarios Miguel Gallardo helped create. The same would go for any set of four scenarios arising from the process. “A policy is robust enough if it performs well in most of the created scenarios. It is not enough to have a good performance in just one scenario,” says Efraín Leguía, coordinator of the Future Scenarios component of A Common Journey. This year, these scenarios will help prioritize investments to allow small producers to adapt their agricultural production to climate in a sustainable way in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In the end, the scenarios methodology is about breaking the probability mindset of those who work on agriculture and nutritional security in the region. It allows participants to internalize the scenarios that they themselves create in a participatory manner and then use them to design robust programs, plans and investments for climate, and consequently, adapt better to the uncertainty of the future. Danilo Saravia, a consultant who has worked on future scenarios with the UCI-CCAFS team, believes that it’s essential to create a base group. “The important thing is to leave a critical mass in these countries capable of thinking outside the box,” he explains.

Although this is the first national experience in Guatemala and El Salvador, the tool has already been used in other countries in the region. As more people learn to see the future in this way, it will become easier to avoid the trap of the present – and of false certainty – when planning for climate change.

More information about the project A Common Journey here

More information on RE-IMAGINE, sister project of the CCAFS Future Scenarios project based at Utrecht University focusing on bridging the gap between foresight and anticipatory climate governance: @_RE_IMAGINE_ (twitter)

More information on the CCAFS Future Scenarios project here