Drylands cover two-fifths of the Earth’s land and are home to 2.3 billion people worldwide. Although they are among the world’s most unpredictable environments, people have learnt to harness this variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems. Too often, policymakers misunderstand this rich local knowledge, accepting instead narratives portraying drylands as suffering irreversible degradation, resource scarcity, impoverishment, conflict and now climate change.Most development strategies use this low-potential characterisation to justify replacing traditional livelihoods and customary systems. This has largely failed, but is often repeated. Misunderstanding dryland dwellers’ resilience to variability not only misses opportunities to capitalise on drylands’ potential, but also makes communities and economies more vulnerable to climate change, disproportionately affecting women and girls, particularly amongst pastoralists.Climate projections generally predict greater short- and medium-term variability and more extreme weather; some indicate rainfall shortages exacerbated by higher maximum and minimum temperatures. Such scenarios pose real difficulties for climate adaptation — particularly where an historical legacy of limited and often inappropriate development has made people more vulnerable.Drylands development, incorporating climate action, must follow the Paris Agreement’s adaptation guidance and be “based upon and guided by the best available science … and local knowledge systems” (United Nations Paris Agreement 2015, Article 7, paragraph 5). Despite their struggles, dryland people have much to teach us about living in an increasingly variable and uncertain world.