New tools to operationalise justice enable more effective climate adaptation

Key messages

  • Implementing adaptation equitably benefits everyone and helps avoid maladaptation, yet most adaptation planning neglects justice dimensions.
  • An adaptation justice index proposes long-term collaborative adaptation planning across social scales and timescales.
  • Adaptation rationales articulate the values and practicalities of an adaptation plan.
  • Locally led adaptation (LLA) emphasises that when projects are designed and implemented and funds are managed at the local level, the resulting outcome is a more just form of adaptation.

Insight explained

Adaptation in response to climate change is uneven in large part due to unjust design, funding and implementation. The United Nations Environment Programme Adaptation Gap Reports have increasingly mentioned justice concerns. Adaptation is recognised as being most effective when it centres on justice, yet adaptation planning and implementation still neglect conceptualisations of adaptation justice and the most vulnerable and marginalised people – who are also the most heavily impacted by climate change. Globally, because of limited monitoring, evaluation and learning, there is limited evidence of the extent of justice within outcomes from adaptation strategies and plans. There is also a lack of consideration of social divisions, such as poverty, gender and ethnicity. An intersectional approach that might better capture the ways in which vulnerability and risk take shape is rarely taken.

While acknowledging the importance of physical processes, recent adaptation justice research emphasises the socio-economic structures that drive climate vulnerability and make adaptation unavailable to many – and destructive to some. Adaptation plans perceived as unjust may face resistance. Examples include forced relocation (see Insight 8), imposition of food crops and technocratic practices (see Insight 10), lack of participation in drafting plans, or applying labels such as “climate refugee”.

The factors that produce unjust outcomes operate at different scales. At the international scale, insufficient funding and structural biases in funding mechanisms reflect the lack of recognitional and procedural justice (see Figure 9 for how we operationalise these concepts). This gap prevents funds from reaching those who need them most, in turn hampering distributive and restorative justice mechanisms such as compensation for loss and damage. Many communities cannot fulfil the burdensome reporting requirements attached to most sources of funding. Similarly, funds to address loss and damage should be easily accessible by communities in need via grants.

Here, we highlight three recent conceptual advances for adaptation justice in practice: the adaptation justice index, adaptation rationales and LLA.

The adaptation justice index proposes a shift from a narrow model of stakeholder engagement to full and long-term co-produced collaborative partnerships for procedural and distributive justice. It operates across scales of social organisation and accounts for short- and long-term implications of adaptation actions. It aligns with recent work that examines adaptation and maladaptation as poles of a continuum, rather than distinct types of action.

Adaptation rationales are pathways that guide priorities, actions and outcomes. They are not focused on technical adaptation fixes alone and can incorporate solutions to improve livelihoods and sustainable development. Good rationales promote equality and reduce vulnerability. Many adaptation projects lack explicit adaptation rationales, reflecting gaps in procedural and epistemic justice. Transparent, well-constructed adaptation rationales with well-articulated benefits help minimise uneven distribution of those benefits. To achieve justice, we must plan for a broad set of adaptation benefits framed around reduced exposure, reduced sensitivity and increased adaptive capacity. Moreover, strong adaptation rationales enable the effective monitoring, evaluation and learning of the different components of justice.

LLA can foster bottom-up initiatives and respect community autonomy while sharing knowledge and building capacity. This approach was recently shown to promote more just outcomes in adaptation planning and implementation.


Increases in resilience can be secured in all regions and communities by addressing adaptation justice in adaptation plans

People are responding to new climate realities everywhere, but deliberative planning processes can have better, more just outcomes. Communities with more participatory processes are more likely to design adaptation plans that are just and values-aligned.

Drawing on Indigenous knowledge and scientific information, villagers in Fiji planned their own relocation of coastal villages impacted by coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion. The decision was made possible thanks to land-use laws enabling relocation, which served to support livelihoods by expanding access to terrestrial and marine resources, and maintained cultural values and connections to ritual sites.

Hurricane Harvey in Harris County, Texas (United States) revealed inadequacies of adaptation planning as low-income neighbourhoods were especially impacted, particularly those residing outside of floodplains. These communities received no warning, because they were not considered to be at high risk.

Implications & Recommendations

Climate negotiators and decision-makers, depending on the scale of their operations, can take the following concrete actions:

In international settings:

  • Increase and improve access to funds to promote procedural justice. For example, the Loss and Damage Fund should be easily accessible to communities in need through grants.
  • Request explicit, clear analysis of justice implications of proposed projects undertaken by multilateral and bilateral climate funds such as the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund.
  • Move towards fair collaborative partnerships with inclusion of marginalised voices in decision-making processes, equal access to resources, operating across scales of social organisation and accounting for short- and long-term implications of adaptation actions.
  • Monitor, evaluate and learn from adaptation actions to consider social divisions, such as gender and ethnicity, in adaptation strategies and plans.
  • Emphasise learning loops and ensure that lessons drawn from evaluations are built back into future adaptation strategy design.
  • Make positive and reproducible case studies around the world available for learning.

In national settings:

  • Recognise and break down detrimental power differences among all stakeholders in the adaptation planning and implementation process to ensure equitable representation and participation.
  • Support the development of explicit, clear adaptation rationales by local communities that protects the community by reducing exposure and vulnerability.
  • Ensure (re)development plans are evaluated with an adaptation justice index.
  • Increase adaptive capacity through appropriate (de)regulation, including monitoring, evaluation and learning of the different components of justice.

In local settings:

  • Ensure that outside actors do not interfere with the decision-making process so that local communities can discuss and assess a full range of appropriate and desirable adaptation options.
  • Take particular care to support the participation of the most vulnerable and marginalised in adaptation efforts.
  • Report adaptation efforts as part of monitoring and evaluation procedures to other communities and to national and international organisations, including lessons learned to work with alternative options when they arise.
Figure 9. A perspective on the components of adaptation justice and implications in adaptation planning and processes. Based on: (1) Juhola et al. (2022). Connecting climate justice and adaptation planning: An adaptation justice index. Environmental Science and Policy, 136, 609–619. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2022.07.024; (2) Orlove et al. (2023). Placing diverse knowledge systems at the core of transformative climate re- search. Ambio, 52, 1431–1447. doi: 10.1007/s13280-023-01857-w

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

Solutions and Barriers




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