Strengthening civic engagement in an era of climate uncertainty
Astrid Villepelet
29 July 2019

Climate change brings complexity and uncertainty at an unprecedented level. Mainstreaming climate change into urban planning will require civic engagement to strengthen the capacities of public institutions and their ability to navigate this complexity.

Climate vulnerabilities and inequalities are interlinked


Image courtesy: UN HABITAT

Sri Lanka, like other island nations, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the World Bank, ‘about 19 million people in Sri Lanka today live in locations that would become moderate or severe hotspots by 2050’, this constitutes 90% of the country’s population. Hotspots are locations that will be adversely affected by changes in average weather. Severe hotspots are predicted to face at least an 8% decline in living standards. In Sri Lanka, the Northern and North-Western provinces are identified as such. These are already poor regions, now facing post-conflict challenges. It is important to place emphasis on the fact that inequalities and climate resilience are interlinked. The poor are the least responsible for climate change (the wealthiest 1% of the global population have a carbon footprint 175 times higher than the poorest 10 per cent according to Oxfam) and yet the worst affected by it. Various forms of inequalities intersect namely political, economic, social, spatial and gender inequalities. Some people suffer the cumulative effects of these intersecting inequalities and as a result are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The unpredictability of rainfall, tropical storms and sea level rises will more likely impact the most vulnerable groups and traditional livelihoods: populations living in precarious housing and in areas poorly served by essential public services. Building resilience means tackling factors of vulnerability, investing in resilient infrastructure, improving access to water, energy, education, and safe housing.

Climate science is robust but uncertainty can’t be eliminated


There is a general consensus in the scientific community that climate change occurs due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions. There has been a marked increase in greenhouse gas emissions since the 1950s, resulting in greater atmospheric CO2 concentrations, species extinction, and deforestation (IPCC). Complex models have been constructed to try to anticipate the effects of climate change. However, despite forecasts, there will always be elements of uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change on local and global economies. The recent discovery that permafrost (frozen grounds situated near the North and South Poles) is thawing faster than expected has alarmed climate experts. The consequences of melting permafrost include the destruction of houses and infrastructure built atop it, as well as the release of stored methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The example of permafrost underscores the importance of being prepared for climate uncertainties

Embracing uncertainty means opening up to a plurality of knowledge


Image courtesy: SDG Action Campaign


The complexity and unpredictability of climate change require opening-up potential pathways of change. The challenge at stakes should have an impact on how knowledge is established. Bringing a plurality of perspectives, without opposing technical knowledge and local knowledge is essential. Ancestral techniques and local knowledge are important and valid in order to understand the natural world and create context-appropriate policies. Increasingly, scholars demonstrate the importance of paying attention to the everyday practices of groups who already deal with uncertainty and have deployed innovative solutions on their own initiative. In the domain of water for example, climate change reinforces uncertainty in many places. Feminist political ecologists analyse the daily challenges facing women and their lived experience of uncertainty. In many Global South settings, women are traditionally responsible for water collection and are therefore most acutely affected by water stress. Greater inclusion of women in policymaking spaces in relation to water matters is necessary. We need to benefit from the collective intelligence of women to reinvent current models.

The crucial challenge of building Open Government


Every region will face particular challenges, depending on its local environment or the characteristics of its inhabitants. That is why it is essential to renew the relationship between policymakers and civil society to ensure equity. Complex dynamics are often simplified to justify particular kinds of action and interventions. The politics of climate resilience are overlooked and can serve to reinforce inequalities and social injustice. Therefore, citizens should have a space to express their views about how to take action, manage the trade-offs, and build pathways towards a sustainable transition. On this note, Sri Lanka joined the Open Government Partnership in October 2015. Along with 79 member countries, the government has committed to advance open governance through enhancing transparency and citizen participation in governance processes. The second National Action Plan (2019-2021) has set ambitious commitments. Careful monitoring of progress by civil society organizations will be key to ensuring the effective implementation of this plan.


Flexible, inclusive and accountable institutions are necessary to succeed in an era of uncertainty. These new forms of governance will be an opportunity to bring issues of social justice and redistribution on the agenda and reinforce trust in government. Considering climate resilience and inequalities together is essential to ‘leave no one behind’.






IPCC, (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151pp.


Open Government Partnership:

Sri Lanka Action Plan 2019-2021



Gore, T. (2015) ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first’ Oxfam Policy and Practice


World Bank:

Mani, M., Bandyopadhyay, S., Chonabayashi, S., Markandya, A., & Mosier, T. (2018). South Asia’s Hotspots: The Impact of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards. The World Bank.



Astrid Villepelet
29 July 2019
Astrid is an MA candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Her research interests include climate change and sustainable cities.


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