Adaptation and human development: looking at the climate crisis from the perspective of capabilities

By Carla Gomes

We have got used to seeing human development as some kind of ladder, where gradual improvement in quality of life is the only desirable and reasonable outcome. However, the unprecedented crisis of climate change threatens to hinder longstanding gains in poverty alleviation, health and food security, at worldwide level. The ‘climate emergency’ has a direct impact on the availability of resources, shrinking liveable territory and making it all the more challenging to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Looking at this problem through the lens of capabilities – our opportunities to lead a life we have reason to value – helps to clarify the multiple ways in which climate change hinders human development, or how the ‘blind spots’ of climate-related policies may reinforce existent vulnerabilities. Conversely, it unveils how our personal and social strengths, often less visible, can serve as adaptation capabilities.

The capabilities approach, as a school of thought, has been pioneered by economist Amartya Sen and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. While the former argued that capabilities worth preserving should be democratically chosen, the latter sought to define a list of central, non-negotiable capabilities that ought to be protected through constitutional law. Martha Nussbaum’s list of ‘central capabilities’ encompasses basic physical needs, such as adequate shelter, health and food, but also social and emotional ones, such as recreational activities (play), freedom of expression, love and relationships.

Martha Nussbaum’s 10 central capabilities


  • Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  • Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  • Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assaultand domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  • Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason.
  • Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence.
  • Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.
  • Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, (…) to engage in various forms of social interaction; having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation.
  • Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  • Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities
  • Control over one’s Environment: Political and Material
    (Adapted from “Creating Capabilities: the Human Development Approach”, 2011, please refer to this book for a detailed explanation of each capability)

A strong concern for development researchers and practitioners, at the moment, is the risk that climate change will erase decades of progress in poverty alleviation and food security, along with the increasing burden of disaster relief. Many of the poorest in the world, such as smallholder farmers in developing countries of the ‘Global South’, are also the most vulnerable to climatic stress (floods, temperature rise, and severe droughts).

Yet, the ‘Global North’ is plagued by its own dilemmas. The Gilets Jaunes [Yellow Vests] movement in France started as a reaction to ‘green’ taxes over fossil fuels, a stark reminder about the impacts of climate-related policies on pre-existent social vulnerabilities, made all the worse by the economic recession of the last decade. The need for a ‘just transition’ has become common place across climate-related policies and discourses, and most often refers to ensuring employment and social equality.

Mobility and health

David Kronlid, who published an extensive work on climate adaptation and human capabilities, highlights mobility as a key capability affected by climate change and related policies. On the one hand, climatic stress is a key factor in migrations across the globe. Those already worst-off will have increasing difficulty in accessing adequate and safe shelter, as well as liveable territories with conditions to grow food, for instance. On the other hand, the low-income populations carry the heavier burden of decarbonisation. Carbon taxes will not change significantly the mobility patterns of the higher-income groups, who also have easier access to cleaner and more modern vehicles, such as electric cars. But those who face increasing mobility constraints can expect direct consequences in professional opportunities, as well as for their social and cultural life.

Another key capability affected by climate change is health. Rising temperatures and climate disasters favour disease and threaten physical wellbeing in multiple ways. Recent studies on energy poverty with the participation of researchers from ICS-ULisboa revealed that vast percentages of the European population are unable to adequately heat or cool their homes. Multiple studies have also stressed, not surprisingly, the negative effect of heat on intellectual performance and productivity. Furthermore, the report “The imperative of climate action to protect human health in Europe”, by the European Academies Science Advisory Council, highlights the effects that climate-related anxiety is already having on mental health.

Human flourishing in a climate stressed world

On BBC column ‘Climate Emotions’, Christine Ro observes how climate worry has been affecting the mental health of more and more people, making it difficult to function, make decisions and plan for the future. A recent comparative study of 25 cases in Africa and Asia – led by Nitya Rao, from the University of East Anglia – concludes that climate-related stress is hindering women’s capacity to make meaningful choices, even when they have a supportive environment at home and in their communities. Within organised activist movements or not, citizens’ expectations and attitudes are changing in radical ways. Having children has become a widespread dilemma, portrayed in recent theatre plays such as ‘Lungs’.

The extent to which our freedom and future expectations are constrained by climate change will vary strongly depending on our geographical setting, economic and political conditions. But the risk of worsening inequality is global. Disadvantages are mutually reinforcing and tend to work in ‘clusters’. A lack of mobility can lead to impoverishment, for instance, and increase the risk of chronic food insecurity.

Foto1_Carla Gomes_blog post_20 Nov 2019
“Climate-related stress is hindering women’s capacity to make meaningful choices, even when they have a supportive environment”. Women collecting water in Mozambique. Photo by Carla Gomes

This invites uncomfortable questions: to what extent has climate change really been affecting our lives, often in subtle ways? Are we making hard choices, or at least aware that at some point we will have to make them (voluntarily, indirectly through economic pressure, or directly through political pressure)? Is the climate crisis changing how we feel about getting old, or loving someone? Where is the place for personal dreams (not necessarily material) and human flourishing in a climate stressed world?

For some time we have embarked on the premise that climate change mitigation was manageable through the technological fixes of the ‘Green Economy’, such as widespread use of renewable energy, and thus compatible with continuous economic growth. Rather than a somewhat softer transition, it has become increasingly obvious that climate change requires a transformation of political and economic structures.

Behind the concept of transformation lies the idea that adaptation might lead to improved wellbeing and better societies, more just and sustainable. Embracing the challenge of a just transformation will however require us to find ways of not only preventing further deprivation, but even enhancing human capabilities through adaptation. David Schlosberg argues that capabilities should be the benchmarks to evaluate the fairness of climate adaptation policies.

In his 2014 book, Kronlid stresses that climate adaptation is both a barrier to wellbeing and a capability in itself. International organisations and the academy have been emphasising, for example, the role of traditional knowledge for resilience and adaptive capacity of communities across the globe. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has labelled ‘autonomous’ adaptation those strategies that each of us adopt, and our communities of belonging, often without considering them as explicit adaptation measures.

A common example of these ‘autonomous’ adaptation capabilities is the diversification of crops amongst smallholder farmers. But everyone builds climate-relevant knowledge and capabilities throughout their lives. Our family heritage, life experiences, and even our individual personalities and sensibilities will influence how we ultimately interpret and respond to a challenging environment. We need to summon all our inspiration to deal with the climate challenge, for sure. In our quest for a just transformation, we should not just seek to understand our vulnerabilities, but also build upon our adaptation capabilities.

Carla Gomes is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS-ULisboa). She holds a PhD in International Development from the University of East Anglia (UEA), in co-tutelle with the University of Lisbon. She has collaborated with ICS in multiple projects on climate adaptation, most recently in the regional Adaptation Plan for the Algarve, as well as the Municipal Adaptation Strategy of Loulé (stakeholder engagement and monitoring).


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