woman helping young boy wash his hands
Environment and Public Health Organization staff member, Radhika Ghamire, teaches four-year-old Rhythm Phuyal the technique for effective handwashing. | Credit: USAID Global Waters

Applying a Human-Centered Perspective to Climate Uncertainty

By Alison Howard

Behavioral science can provide critical insights when creating climate-resilient programming. With a human-centered perspective rooted in behavior change, climate practitioners can help communities adapt to an uncertain future.

When it comes to preparing for potential climate crises, this sort of human-centered programming can look like taking a “no regrets” approach. For example, ahead of the Horn of Africa’s rainy season last year, Dr. James Verdin, senior agroclimatologist for USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), explained, “We would be better off preparing for a dry outcome and being pleasantly surprised if the rains perform well, rather than counting on good rains only to experience [another] drought.”


Woman cutting grass in a field
Nagele Boru cuts grass from a community enclosure to feed her calves as part of a USAID program that helps cushion vulnerable groups from shocks and increase their resilience by providing predictable and timely food transfers.

Such uncertain situations are more and more common as the climate crisis continues to exacerbate droughts, the spread of disease, conflict, and other threats to human well-being. As a learning agency, USAID uses evidence, such as the latest research on behavior change, to inform its decision making. Two recent studies shared by ResilienceLinks highlight how innovations in behavioral science can increase the effectiveness of efforts to enhance resilience while confronting the climate crisis.  

The Resilience Evaluation, Analysis and Learning (REAL) Associate Award consortium, funded by the USAID Center for Resilience, released “Early Warning for Early Action: Toward More Behaviorally Informed Early Warning Systems,” in 2020. The framework “flips the script” for designing early warning systems by taking a people-first, rather than a data-first, approach. The authors give the example of an early warning system in the Philippines' Bicol River basin. The system was developed with rainfall data from community members, using rain gauges installed near their homes. It ultimately helped the area prepare for 2009’s Typhoon Dante, with community members more likely to respond to flooding predictions after being involved in the early warning process.  

Beyond early warning systems, a wide variety of resilience and climate programming can benefit from behavior change interventions. The Research Technical Assistance Network partnered with USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning to research “climate related game changers.” Their 2022 report identifies ways to increase impact in climate programming. Behavioral science in particular can inform programming that scales the impact of individuals and households to respond to the climate crisis. The report notes promising examples of programs that apply behavioral science to advance climate-smart agriculture.

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Agriculture, Disaster Risk Management, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning, Resilience
Africa, Asia
Headshot of Alison Howard

Alison Howard

Alison Howard is a Communications Associate at Environmental Incentives. She provides writing, editing, and other communications support to several USAID-funded projects, including the Advancing Capacity for the Environment program.

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