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ICTs, adaptation to climate change, and sustainable development at the edges. An IISD commentary

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D. MacLean
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This paper explores the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enable people to adapt to the consequences of climate change, particularly in the most vulnerable regions of the world—areas that are geographically, economically or socially marginal, and therefore tend to lie at the edges of the world’s mainstream concerns. Using the Arctic as a case study, the author asserts that in addition to the harmful impacts of climate change, beneficial opportunities can also result, even in some of the most vulnerable regions of the world. As such, it is important to see how ICTs can help people living in these regions realise beneficial opportunities, as well as moderate harm. In order to analyse the role ICTs can play in supporting top-down and bottom-up approaches to adaptation, the authors argue that it is helpful to use a framework found in much of the ICT-environment literature. This framework distinguishes between three different kinds of effects:

first order or direct effects – e.g., the use of ICTs as a tool for monitoring and measuring climate change, assessing its effects, and controlling interactions with the environment
second order or indirect effects – e.g., the use of ICTs as a medium for increasing awareness and facilitating dialogue about the effects of climate change
third order or systemic effects – e.g., the use of ICTs as an enabler for “networked governance”— the new forms of economic and social organisation and decision-making that will likely be needed not only to adapt to climate change, but to achieve sustainable development

While important, the author notes that both first and second order effects are largely known quantities that are already subjects of national policy and international coordination in Arctic countries. What is moredifficult to see, with the present state of knowledge and existing policy mechanisms, is how ICTscan be used to enable new forms of “networked governance” in the Arctic region.It is asserted that the Arctic example suggests that successful adaptation to climate change, particularly in the world’s most vulnerable regions, requires us to move beyond the first- and second-order effects of ICTs towards systemic transformation of economic and social structures through networked governance. Learning how to do this is one of the major challenges facing both the ICT sector and the sustainable development community.