Adaptation Futures- A brilliant conference

An editor's reflection on their experiences at the 2023 Adaptation Futures conference in Montreal Canada, October 2023.
Adaptation Futures- A brilliant conference
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Now that 2024 is here, I’ve had time to reflect on my wonderful experience attending the Adaptation Futures conference which ran October 2-6 in Montreal, Canada during the busy 2023 conference season. 

In its 7th iteration, the conference is held by the World Adaptation Science Programme, or WASP, housed within the United Nations Environment Programme. Together, they partnered with the Governments of Quebec and Canada to host the conference and a Quebecois research consortium, Ouranos, took the lead as organizer. No stranger to the complex interactions of science, policy and the public, Ouranos was well positioned to balance and anticipate the needs of these groups throughout the conference. 

With over 2000 people attending, from 120 countries, and 180 sessions, it was an exciting week full of shared ideas that I won’t soon forget!

A focus on indigenous knowledge

One of the main themes of the conference was giving space to indigenous science and knowledge as well as locals' role in climate adaptation. With a pre-opening address from Kenneth Atsenhaienton Deer, the Secretary of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake as well as a keynote opening talk from Sheila Watt Cloutier, the conference delved into complex discussion on the tokenization and roles of Indigenous People in climate science.

This really resonated with me. Too often we see work that recognizes Indigenous Peoples as stewards of the land but we rarely give them the platform of authorship. Is this because we don’t equate indigenous knowledge within Western metrics of education? Are there still legacy geopolitics at play that undermine Indigenous voices? I continuously thought back to these questions as the week unfolded.

It’s key to remember that Indigenous Peoples are not victims or statistics of climate change, but active participants in the protections of our environment. 

I feel that this is an important component of social science: agency. We are not just statistics and metrics that help define our reactions to the world. Whether it be climate migration, pollution, employment, electric vehicle ownership, etc behind each number is a very real person experiencing climate change with their own perspective and experiences. We should not forget the humanity behind climate adaptation as we move increasingly towards a mitigation metric approach.

With Indigenous Leaders present throughout the week, the conference had one of the deepest connections with these important themes of agency that I have ever been to. 

Thrilling sessions

The conference focused largely on a discussions based approach. It was so refreshing and fantastic to see a mix of academics at various career stages share the podiums with policy and decision makers.

While in the publishing world, I am familiar with the research aspect of climate science. But to be in the room, listening to these dynamic interdisciplinary discussions, really helped me connect to where the science is moving, what is exciting and inspiring both academics and policy makers, and how far we still have to go. 

I appreciated the way the session leaders encouraged audience questions and discussions; it wasn’t a session of presentation after presentation. The conference understood its audience. 

I attended one session on incorporating indigenous knowledge in assessments on climate change impacts and adaptation where we sat in a circle and experiences were shared to the room as a group. Initially hesitant, many people shied away from sharing but as the crowd warmed up we were able to hear voices from many corners of climate assessments; research academics, local leaders, those drafting the policy. This is the way these assessments should be approached and I hope governance will embrace this style of learning.

I have a big appreciation for the week long African Pavilion and Latin American and Caribbean Pavilion. A dedicated space for sessions on these crucial regions led to productive discussions, I particularly enjoyed the healthy discussion on metrics in a session on capturing the diversity of adaptation needs and outcomes in communities across Africa and Asia. So often these regions are overlooked, or at times used as helicopter research regions, that I am grateful the conference elevated research from these regions by local researchers to the global format. 

Canada’s Contribution

Montreal is a living lab in urban climate adaptation. We heard from Valerie Plante, the mayor of Montreal, who has a strong record in pushing forward environmental and climate centric policies. The city itself is planning to add 30 new parks and 400 sponge sidewalks in the next 2 years to help the city adapt to changing rainfall patterns.

Walking around Montreal you can feel the city’s awareness of their environment. The cold winters are famously a harsh reality for the Quebecois and they have a built environment to adapt to it. However, walking around the city this time, things were surprisingly green. The city was full of greenery and while the reality of living there may be different, this outsider’s perspective was a city connected to the environment. 

While no city is perfect, considering the challenging legislative and political framework around environmental regulation, it’s promising to see these problems being so openly tackled and discussed.

An aside on the funding, Quebec itself has made an encouraging promise, an additional 10 million dollars will be added to the UNFCC adaptation fund. While a drop in the bucket, on a local scale 10 million can go a long way and I am always encouraged by any progress in this direction.

The Next Chapter

While no conference can cover everything, Adaptation Futures in Montreal took a unique and wonderful approach, really embracing the multidisciplinary and multi stakeholder nature of climate adaptation.

As I left the week, had my questions on the tokenization of Indigenous Peoples been answered? Not fully. Maybe there isn’t a clear answer as to why but what I did learn was how to ask these questions of the research, how to identify the gaps in this space, and hopefully, how to encourage more work in this field. 

When one conference ends, another one starts. Here’s to looking forward to what our friends in Christchurch, New Zealand have in store for us at Adaptation Futures 2025!

Check out the full 2023 programme here.
And check out what is coming in 2025 here.

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