Chapter contents

2a. Understanding and establishing the “climate rationale”

Successful climate change proposals begin with a solid understanding of the physical processes associated with a changing climate (e.g., sea level rise, increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns) and how these physical processes affect human systems and activities. This is sometimes referred to as the climate rationale. Having an effective climate rationale is among the most critical elements for successful project design. The climate rationale explains how changes in environmental conditions caused by global warming are making life more difficult for people in some way. This explanation must be supported by good data and information. In this chapter, we will cover the basics of developing a climate rationale for your project proposal.

Why is the climate rationale important?

The climate rationale is important because climate funds such as the Adaptation Fund and the Green Climate Fund have been designed specifically to address problems that are caused primarily by climate change rather than those that are driven primarily by human factors, such as mismanagement of resources, poor governance, or other basic economic and social development issues. The reason for this is that these funds have been established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which obligates developed countries to provide “new and additional” financing to developing countries to address the impacts of climate change.

The “new and additional” clause was included in the UNFCCC to help ensure that developed countries do not divert existing development aid and budgets to climate change. In practical terms, this is meant to ensure that funding for climate change projects does not come at the expense of the funds that are already available to assist developing countries in meeting their general development goals. An evidence-based climate rationale is a critical part of full-sized projects, but small grants programs that are funded by international climate funds also have to apply the same logic to the projects they support.

From a practical perspective, project proposals must demonstrate clearly how they specifically address climate change adaptation needs as opposed to general development needs. In other words, you must make a clear case that climate change has created or worsened the problem. As important as this is, it is also one of the most challenging parts of developing a successful project proposal.

Designing projects to address impacts

In most cases, your project will not address the physical processes associated with climate change.1In some cases, a project may address some direct impact of physical processes. For example, a drainage improvement project may be implemented to upgrade infrastructure to protect against more frequent and severe flooding. However, these sorts of projects are much larger than small grants projects. For example, imagine that you live in a coastal community that is being affected by sea level rise. You are most likely not going to be able to design a project that stops sea level rise. Instead, you will need to design a project that addresses the impacts of sea level rise. These impacts may include coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion into aquifers, damage to crops, and many other negative processes.

However, each of these impacts could also be the result of non-climate drivers, such as resource mismanagement, poor enforcement, or inappropriate agricultural practices (e.g., dredging activities, deforestation of mangrove protective barriers). In the case of our example, if unsustainable land-management practices or other human factors are the main factor driving the coastal erosion or saltwater intrusion we are trying to address, but the proposed activities in the project focus on sea level rise, the proposed project is not likely to have much of an impact. This is because, even after the project is implemented, the human causes are likely to continue.

In other words, this is an example of a project that tries to solve the wrong problem. Climate change funds are not likely to approve these types of projects. In addition, if the real driver of the problem is a lack of enforcement of existing laws or issues of political will, the project is not likely to be funded. In these cases, funding agencies will look to government authorities to fulfill their responsibilities as a more cost- effective first step to addressing the problem.

Tips on project selection

Hence part of developing a winning proposal is project selection. A good rule of thumb is that you should not start with a problem that you already want to address with a project and then work backwards to a climate change rationale. In other words, you should not invent or concoct a climate change rationale for a project that you have already designed and for which you are seeking funding. Instead, and ideally, you should begin with the physical processes of climate change, determine what impacts these will have on human systems, and then choose your project based on these impacts. This will help you to ensure that your project is indeed rooted in climate change, and you will be able to “screen out” projects that are not primarily addressing climate change problems.

Another good rule of thumb is that if you remove climate change from your problem formulation, and you still have a big problem, then the problem to be addressed is not a climate change problem. Or alternatively, if the problem to be addressed existed in an unmanageable state before climate change impacts became obvious, then climate change is clearly not the key driver of the problem.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a project is a “climate change project” or a “development project” because development problems such as poor infrastructure, lack of adequate health facilities, or poor agricultural productivity can make existing climate vulnerabilities worse. The key point is to identify problems that have arisen (or have become significantly worse) because of documented or observed changes in climate conditions. For example, infrastructure (e.g., roads) is being damaged because changing environmental conditions are causing more flooding. Or in the case of health facilities, if you can demonstrate that your public health infrastructure is facing difficulties due to more cases of dengue fever or malaria because climate change is expanding mosquito habitats, then you are showing that the primary cause of the problem is climate change.

Of course climate change adaptation projects can and should have development co-benefits, because the ability of individuals, communities, and governments to handle climate change is related to their level of socioeconomic development. However, as noted above, you must show with data and information that the problem is rooted in climate change.

The next section describes some practical steps that you can take to develop your climate rationale and to demonstrate clearly that your proposed project is indeed addressing a climate change problem.

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2b. Formulating a climate rationale to inform project design2This section presents a methodology that is appropriate for small grants projects. Another tool that is often used to plot out the climate rationale is impact chain analysis, a concept mapping tool that generally begins with the physical processes of climate change and traces them to specific impacts on society. Links to resources describing impact chain analysis are included in the appendix.

As noted above, climate change funding opportunities require that proposed projects include a clear climate rationale. Example criteria and questions drawn from actual proposal templates include:

  • Describe the climate change problem the proposal is expected to address.
  • Describe the most likely scenario that would remain or continue in the absence of the proposed interventions.
  • Is the climate rationale clearly articulated?

The climate rationale is essentially a story of how climate change is happening locally and how it is affecting local people in negative ways. The steps below should help to guide you in telling your climate rationale story. We have included a simplified, purely fictional, example for illustrative purposes.

Step 1: Describe the changes in physical processes that have been observed in your country/island/region.

The first step is to describe the baseline climate conditions in your area, and how these have been changing in recent years. To the extent possible, describe trends and how “normal” conditions have been changing over time. This often involves a comparison. For example, if you have the appropriate data,3The general rule of thumb in project design is that you use the best available information. This means that you should use information that already exists. In general for small projects, you will not need to conduct additional climate studies, but you must demonstrate that you have conducted a review to determine what information is the “best available.” For some larger projects, new studies might be needed. you could compare average rainfall from 1950–1980 with average rainfall from 1995–2015 to show that there has been an increase or decrease.

There are a number of sources for this type of data and information. A good starting point is your country’s strategies and policies on climate change, which may include one or more of the following documents:

  • Joint National Action Plan (JNAP) or Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)/Disaster Risk Management (DRM) plans
  • National Communications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • National Adaptation Plan
  • National Climate Change Strategy/Policy/Action Plan

These documents, which are usually available on the internet, generally describe the physical changes that are taking place and in most cases provide statistical information for things like sea level rise, number of hydro-meteorological disasters, total rainfall, and temperature trends. These documents represent a synthesis of existing knowledge on climate conditions, and most funders recognize them as authoritative sources. Therefore, if you are able to utilize information about changing environmental conditions that is included in these documents, you do not need to go to academic studies for data. Remember to always cite the references that you use with footnotes or a bibliography.

The basic example below demonstrates how this information might be applied as part of a climate rationale.

Palm Island historically has experienced a monsoon climate with a rainy season and a dry season. Over the past 20 years, however, data from Palm Island’s National Weather Service, as well as data and information from regional agencies (e.g., SPREP), indicate a long-term increase in the length of the dry season and a decrease in the average amount of rainfall received during the rainy season. In addition, the same sources indicate the occurrence of more heavy rainfall events during the rainy season.

Step 2: Identify an area where one or more of these changes has had an impact.

Based on this information, choose an area where these changes in environmental conditions have had an impact on human systems. It is important to choose a location, community, or group of people that the changes have actually affected. Briefly describe the baseline for this location, community, or group. For example:

Taro farmers on Palm Island have relied for generations on fairly predictable rainy season rainfall to water their crops, which provide a large share of their household food consumption. In some cases, especially among women, small amounts of taro are also sold in the local market to earn cash income.

Step 3: Describe the impact that these changes in physical processes have had on the location, community, or group.

The next step is to describe how these changes in environmental conditions have changed conditions in your project area. A good rule of thumb is to look for impacts that were not experienced in the past or for an increase in the frequency of negative events. Remember to use data and information to describe the impacts, if possible. For example:

However, over the past 20 years, decreased rainfall during the rainy season has started to affect taro yields. The Palm Island Taro Growers Association indicates that average harvests have decreased by 12% in the past 10 years. As a result of the extended El Niño-influenced drought in 2013–2014, farmers reported losses of up to 75% of their normal harvest. In addition, the results of a household survey conducted by the Palm Island Women’s Union (PIWU), a local NGO, indicate a significant decrease in the amount of taro available to female-headed households for selling in the market.

Step 4: What has been the broader impact of these changes on human systems and well-being?

Next, describe how the changes you described are affecting people. Here again, use data and information to support your story. In some cases it may be appropriate to refer to specific events and personal anecdotes from people affected by the changing conditions. However, if possible, these anecdotes should be used to illustrate more general trends that are being described. For example:

The decline in taro production has meant that households are having to spend more money on imported food to replace the taro they normally produce themselves. The PIWU household survey indicates that in 2019 people are spending 8% more of their household income on food than in previous years. This means that less money is available for other expenditures, including health and school fees. In addition, women have less disposable income, and health issues are starting to emerge due to changing diets and improper nutrition. The Palm Island Health Ministry indicates a sharp increase in non-communicable diseases that are often related to diet, and a study conducted by researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi suggested that an emerging over-reliance on less nutritious imported rice is contributing to this increase.

Step 5: What changes are expected in the future?

The last step is to describe what changes might happen in the future if action is not taken to address climate impacts and how these predicted changes could affect humans. Future projections are useful for this purpose, and they can generally be found in the same documents you used for Step 1. Projections will help you make the case for your project based on how it will help avoid future costs, and will demonstrate the urgency for action. For example:

Future projections of rainfall and temperature developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and included in Palm Island’s JNAP indicate that by 2030 rainfall could decrease by an additional 15% and that the growing season may decrease by 21 days. These same projections suggest that by 2050 the total decrease in rainfall could be as high as 32% and the growing season could be shortened by 32 days. Based on these projections, it is likely that the island’s taro production system will be hit extremely hard in the absence of adaptation action. This is likely to increase strain on households and exacerbate the impacts described above over the medium and long term.

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2c. Conclusion

A well-crafted climate rationale sets the stage for your proposal by clearly describing the environmental changes that climate change has caused and their current and future impacts on human systems. The climate rationale feeds directly into the theory of change on which your project is based (see Chapter 5). The lack of a good climate rationale is one of the biggest reasons that project proposals are not funded, not just at the small grants level but also projects proposed to large-scale donors such as the Green Climate Fund.

As we see from the steps and the example described above, one of the most important considerations is project selection. If you begin your planning process with an understanding of the physical processes associated with climate change, it makes it much easier to identify a problem that climate change has caused. Then, by gathering and using relevant facts, data, information, studies, and case studies, you can craft a compelling story of climate change that demonstrates clearly why your project is needed and why the problem you are addressing is a climate change problem, and not a development problem.

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