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As climate change takes its toll, world leaders call for adaptation

Large farms made of water hyacinth keep the farms afloat and safe from floods. Photo by Katia Nicolova.

  • A new global initiative led by former U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon aims to help the world adapt to the fallout from a changing climate.
  • The Global Commission on Adaptation differs from current climate initiatives, which focus largely on mitigation, i.e. efforts to slow the emissions of greenhouse gases.
  • The launch of the commission comes in the shadow of a new U.N. report warning of dire consequences from climate change affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world unless the global temperature rise is kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • But even if this is achieved, Ban says, irreversible changes have been made that are already manifesting as unseasonal heat waves, more destructive storms, and other extreme weather events — which will require adaptation rather than mitigation by countries worldwide.

Leaders from 17 countries, including China and India, have joined a new initiative aimed at helping vulnerable nations deal with the fallout from climate change.

The Global Commission on Adaptation, launched at The Hague on Oct. 16, is led by Ban Ki-moon, the former United Nations secretary-general; Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates; and Kristalina Georgieva, chief executive of the World Bank.

The commission is looking beyond measures to rein in global warming and grapple instead with the question of how to help countries adapt to the threats posed by a changing climate.

The launch of the global commission comes on the heels of a landmark report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns that humanity only has 12 years to keep the global temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Failure to do so, the report predicts, will have catastrophic consequences: Up to 10 million more people would be exposed to permanent inundation, and several hundred million more to climate-related risks, rendering them susceptible to poverty. Malaria and dengue fever would be more widespread, and yields of crops like maize, rice and wheat would diminish, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America.

“It’s challenging but it’s feasible to stay below 1.5 [degrees Celsius],” Ban said on a press call. “There’s no question, reducing emission remains a priority and we must do all we can to prevent [global warming]. But even if emission reduction efforts succeed, the changes already locked into [the] planetary system will bring hard-core heat waves, bigger storms, and acidic seas. So we have to do all actions to prepare for climate impacts.”

Extreme weather events linked to climate change have wrought immense damage this summer, one of the hottest on records. There have been devastating hurricanes in the United States, an unprecedented heat wave in Japan, record drought in Cape Town, and forest fires in the Arctic.

Gates said what vulnerable populations needed to adapt to climate change was strong policies.

“And we need to ensure that governments and other stakeholders are supporting innovation and helping deliver those breakthroughs to the people and places that need them most,” he said on the press call. “If everyone does their part, we can reduce carbon emissions, increase access to affordable energy, and help farmers everywhere grow more productive crops.”

Georgieva said failure to adapt to climate change would hurt the most vulnerable communities in the world.

“Our analysis indicates that already extreme poverty in a number of countries is on the rise because of changing climate,” she said. “Most likely we’ll see 100 million people falling back in extreme poverty [by] 2030 as a result of climate change, extreme weather that’s affecting lives and destroying livelihoods.

“It is a cruel irony that those who have least contributed to climate change are the ones who are affected and least able to prepare,” she said. “We face a choice: business as usual and hope for the best; or we act now and build for a resilient future.”

Former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon speaks during the launching of the Global Commission on Adaptation in The Hague. Image by Global Commission on Adaptation.

Race against time

There’s a growing sense of urgency for meaningful measures to adapt to climate change, underscored by the findings of the recent IPCC report. To date, policymakers have focused largely on mitigation — initiatives to slow the emissions of greenhouse gases. But they’ve had little to show for their efforts: energy-related carbon emissions hit an all-time high last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Meanwhile, countries are nowhere near prepared for the new climate reality, one where dramatic weather events and volatile seasons have grown more frequent.

While some cities and countries like New York and Bangladesh have been trying to adapt to climate change, the majority, including small-island states and developing nations, remain highly vulnerable. For them, faster rates of sea-level rise allow much less time to adapt, such as by restoring natural coastal ecosystems and reinforcing infrastructure.

At the U.N. climate talks in 2010, developed nations promised to contribute as much as $100 billion collectively, or 1 percent of their combined GDP, to developing nations by 2020 to help with the transition to a low-carbon economy and with adapting to climate impacts they already experienced.

But the rich nations have not followed through on that promise. Through the end of July this year, only $10.3 billion had been pledged, and only $3.5 billion of it collected, of which $1.4 billion was for adaptation projects.

This year, both the United States and Australia declared that they would no longer contribute any money at all.

“The world has clearly dropped the ball on adaptation,” said Andrew Steer, chief executive of the World Resources Institute (WRI), which is one of the managing partners for the Global Commission on Adaptation.

Ban said financing for climate mitigation amounted to $382 billion in 2015 and 2016, about $140 billion of which was from the public sector. In the same period, the public sector contributed just $22 billion toward climate adaptation financing. (Very little data are available about private financing for adaptation.)

There’s a similar disparity in climate funding from development organizations, with about three-quarters going to climate mitigation and the rest to adaptation, according to Georgieva. Likewise, studies on the costs and benefits of climate adaptation efforts are scant compared to studies on mitigation.

The global commission is looking to change all this.

In its first year, it plans to oversee the preparation of a flagship report, whose findings and recommendations will be presented at the 2019 U.N. climate summit. The report will take into account input from the world’s leading scientific, economic and policy analysis institutes; and will set out why adapting to climate risks and accelerated action is essential, what new actions are needed and what must be done differently, and how governments, companies and citizens can start working today to make the world a safer and better place.

This focus on more detailed research into climate adaptation is what will set the commission apart from other types of climate initiatives, according to Ban.

“The global commission is going beyond the business-as-usual research that is typically associated with this type of initiative,” he said. “The report is going to be significant because for the first time, we will set out what new actions are needed, what must be done differently and how the public and private sector and civil society can work together. And this report will particularly focus on the benefit of adaptation action where previous analysis mainly focused on the cost.”

Ban said the commission’s strength lay in the involvement of the 17 convening countries and 28 commissioners, representing all regions of the globe and all sectors of development and industry.

The convening countries include developing those that are major carbon emitters, such as China, India and Indonesia, as well as developed countries such as Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

“What makes this effort so unique is we believe political will can be a game changer that’s needed to mobilize action on adaptation on a scale that’s needed,” Ban said. “We have the support of [an] unprecedented convening 15 countries and 23 global commissioners” — at the time of the press call — “that can capitalize and mobilize political will like never before.”

In the past, environmental activists tended to reject the idea of adapting to climate change as an easy out, with Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president and Nobel Prize winner, saying calling it a “kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our skins,” in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance.

Georgieva said adapting to climate change was not the same as accepting defeat in the fight against climate change.

“The straightforward truth here is that we’re already facing the consequences of a changing climate,” she said. “Even with 1 degree of increase in temperature, the consequences are already significant. So it is not a defeat, it is a reality that we face.”

Members of the South Carolina’s Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (SC-HART) perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas, August 31, 2017. The SC-HART team consists of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the South Carolina Army National Guard with four Soldiers who are partnered with three rescue swimmers from the State Task Force and provide hoist rescue capabilities. Multiple states and agencies nationwide were called to assist citizens impacted by the epic amount of rainfall in Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Harvey. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez)

Political holdouts

Efforts to limit that temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius look increasingly unlikely, as the gap between science and politics has widened.

U.S. President Donald Trump has withdrawn his country, the world’s biggest source of historical emissions, from the Paris climate agreement. The Trump Administration has also rolled back measures designed to slow climate change.

In a recent interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Trump said he didn’t believe climate change was a hoax — an about-face from his previous stance of climate denial — but continued to question whether it was driven by human activity, something that scientists have answered definitively.

“I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again,” he said in the interview. “I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made. I will say this: I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs.”

The Trump Administration is hardly alone in dashing hopes of keeping to the 1.5-degree limit. In Brazil, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is the strong favorite to win the presidential election in a runoff after a convincing first-round victory. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has threatened to pull Brazil from the Paris Agreement. He has also vowed to abolish the country’s environment ministry and open up the Amazon rainforest, whose ability to absorb carbon dioxide is already declining, to the country’s powerful agribusiness industry.


Banner image: Large farms made of water hyacinth keep the farms afloat and safe from floods, a simple method to adapt to climate change. Image by Katia Nicolova.

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