Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary

Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting


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Robert Kay Robert Kay argues that a desire for grand ceremonies must not be allowed to skew decisions regarding approaches to adaptation.
The author has twenty years experience in climate change impact assessment, geomorphology and coastal zone planning and management. He is the principal director of Coastal Zone Management, based in Perth, Australia.

We all love a phrase that expresses in only a few words something that would take many more words to explain fully. Such expressions often capture a prevailing mood or current sensibility by blending together elements from different places in a language, often mixing a well-known expression or cultural metaphor with emerging themes or issues.

So it is with the phrase Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting - four words that encapsulate my concerns regarding potential decision-making biases in adaptation decision-making. I've used the phrase for a while now, only to hear it said twice in one week by separate colleagues working on climate change adaptation in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps, then, this is a phrase worth exploring.

Ribbon cutting refers to the action of a dignitary, most often an elected official but it can be a local community leader, wearing a broad smile and usually sporting a hard safety hat, wielding an over-sized pair of shiny scissors to cut a bright ceremonial ribbon. The action of ribbon cutting is usually accompanied by speeches announcing that the ceremony signals the opening or completion of something significant.

Ribbon cutting

Commonly, the opening is of public works infrastructure - such as a bridge, road, library, wharf, seawall, flood protection embankment or school. Whatever the occasion, the cutting of the ribbon is a tangible sign of progress, of a decision made that has successfully lead to a tangible outcome, a "concrete" action leading, quite literally in most cases, to concrete.

I'm sure many of us have heard the words at such ceremonies that go something like:

"I am here to open this new [insert name of infrastructure here] that reflects the leadership of [insert name of political party or group here] in making the bold decision to contribute to this local community, to create jobs, to move us all forward, to face the challenges... "

Of course, the ribbon-cutting event is often a genuine celebration of the opening of much-needed public infrastructure - in places, and following designs, that represent optimal expenditure of public funds, that enhance, or at least minimize, environmental impact and that are socially and culturally integrated. The metaphor that Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting represents can, however, mean something altogether different - a range of political and administrative biases or decision-making skews that lead to the decision to build, for example, hard infrastructure as a climate change adaptation option in preference to softer and often more sustainable solutions.

The phrase Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting is shorthand to emphasize two characteristics of a form of decision making that I believe we shall see increasingly with regard to adaptation measures.

  • A focus on infrastructure construction as an adaption option - coastal engineering works (such as seawalls, groynes and breakwaters), water management works (irrigation channels, river dams, channel diversions), flood protection works (embankments, overflow channels), and so on. For example, the construction of a seawall is chosen in preference to building the resilience of coastal ecosystems (such as sand dunes or mangroves) or the relocation of assets and communities at risk from coastal erosion.
  • A short-term decision frame in preference to long-term adaption decision making. The motivation behind the short-term focus being the hope from those sponsoring the adaptation infrastructure works that they will personally be there to cut the ribbon within their term of office and so be in the public spotlight to reflect the success of this good deed.

As recent articles in Tiempo have demonstrated, we are rapidly moving from an adaptation landscape dominated by pilot projects, case studies, capacity building and awareness-raising into a new landscape of systematic and sustained decision making. This new landscape is the domain of decision makers, decision shapers, stakeholders, constituents, electors, elections, perceptions and opinions. It is a messy, movable, dynamic, ever shifting landscape of deal-making, compromise and expediency. In other words, it's real life.

In this real-life landscape, the biases, skews, influences, factors, call them what you will, that influence the minds of decision makers and their advisors are a constant feature, as anyone who has worked within public decision-making systems can testify. Whether it's said out loud, or hidden between the lines, ribbon cutting permeates the advice given to select a particular option that will ensure the maximization of both public relations benefits and political capital.

So what, if anything, can be done to avoid the adverse effects of Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting?

First, we should simply be aware that there may be powerful decision-making biases implicit in adaptation decision making that can favour infrastructure-focused options (with short-term results). We need to be conscious that such decisions may, in the minds of some, give the impression of strong leadership, decisive action and, most importantly, give public and media exposure to decision makers at the opening ceremony.

Second, we can fight the biases towards ribbon-cutting adaptation. We might develop decision-support processes and systems that seek to correct for biases by building-in weightings of various adaptation options to take account these potential biases. Of course, this would be fraught with difficulty in being essentially "washing the dirty laundry" of decision-making processes "in public".

Finally, perhaps we are too shy of embracing ribbon-cutting events, even though they often seem a waste of time and energy, detracting from the main focus of a project. We could embrace the desire for short-term, tangible, concrete action by planning ceremonies for all available adaptation options so that more intangible (even less concrete) options, such as ecosystem resilience building measures or capacity building or awareness-raising programmes, also embed ceremonial activities. Of course, there are also proper considerations of funding accountability - of spending money on ceremonial rather than more tangible, project outcomes - particularly when these are donor funds delivered through tightly-managed project accounting procedures. Perhaps, if decision-biases, like the potential ribbon-cutting bias, are better understood and more explicitly recognized, then all adaptation projects can include funding for appropriate ceremonies.

I think it is becoming clearer and clearer, especially to those outside the professional climate change community, that some hard, controversial and politically unpopular adaptation decisions are coming their way. These decisions may not be in the term of office of today's decision makers, but they will definitely be there for their political descendants, including those in their own political parties.

How, for example, can forced migration of coastal communities due to permanent inundation of coastal areas from the combined impacts sea-level rise and associated climate changes be turned into a positive, good news story? The more politically expedient decision, at least in the short-term, would be to build a seawall to "protect" those at risk - generating another opportunity to cut ribbon.

Perhaps I'm overreacting to hearing the phrase Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting being used by climate change professionals I know and trust. Perhaps I'm not. The key issue in my mind is that we collectively explore its potential meaning. I sincerely hope that this exploration of Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting is suggestive of what might be, rather than an indictment of what is coming.

If we are to identify effective adaptive solutions, we must be prepared to think beyond short-term political horizons and outside the confines of self-interest and expediency. That is the challenge that Adaptation by Ribbon Cutting highlights.


The author thanks everyone who encouraged him to write this article, particularly his colleagues in Coastal Zone Management and ContentPlus - Caro, Ania, Carmen, Todd and Ailbhe.

Further information

Robert Kay, Coastal Zone Management (Australia) Pty Ltd PO Box 436, Claremont, Perth, Australia 6010. Email: robert.kay@.coastalmanagement.com. Web: www.coastalmanagement.com.

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Updated: May 15th 2015