World Resource Institute

Question Seven: Thought Leaders Explore How to Meet Both Today's Development Challenges and Tomorrow's Climate Risks

The world is struggling to overcome pervasive development challenges including hunger, water scarcity and lack of basic human services. In Africa and Asia many countries are set to fall far short of meeting the 2015 anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals; worldwide 2.6 billion people still subsist on less than US$2 a day.

Yet overcoming these challenges will only become more difficult as climate change and its impacts intensify. Already, the world is experiencing the destructive effects of rising global temperatures, altered rainfall patterns and extreme weather, including more frequent droughts and heavy precipitation events. In the short term, such impacts are creating pressing needs for disaster relief and reactive climate adaptation measures.

But in the medium and long term, the effects of climate change will almost certainly be much more disruptive. Wide-ranging impacts, including on agriculture, ecosystems and human habitation, will continue for decades and many will grow in frequency and intensity. To date, global average temperatures have risen by 0.8˚C above pre-industrial levels. By the end of the century, the IPCC projects temperature increases between 1.6˚C and 6.9˚C above pre-industrial levels, with commensurately greater consequences for human society and for ecosystems.

Likely impacts include the inundation of deltas and low lying islands and droughts and floods triggered by altered rainfall patterns on a scale not seen today. Agriculture and water resources will be especially hard hit. Availability of freshwater in Asia is projected to decrease significantly as a result of climate change and other stressors, negatively impacting more than 1 billion people in the next four decades. By mid-century, cereal yields in South Asia could decrease by 30% with obvious implications for food security. In addition, as global temperatures rise, the impacts around the world will also include unforeseeable surprises difficult to plan for.

This stark reality raises tough questions for governments, multilateral institutions, civil society and communities, as they seek to build the resilience of both current and future generations to the inevitable yet unpredictable fallout of climate change.

Of these questions, perhaps the most critical is the following: given the limited resources at their disposal, how can governments strike a balance between responding to pressing needs today versus preparing for tomorrow's likely even greater climate-related risks and challenges?

How should countries whose populations suffer from hunger and lack of basic services or from joblessness and poor education, weigh action on these priorities against the likelihood of dried-up water supplies and threatened coastal communities 20 years down the line?

How, on the one hand, can they cope with increasingly severe disasters, as witnessed by the recent devastating floods in Asia and heatwave in Russia---while, on the other, managing the uncertainty of future climate-related risks, including some which won't materialize for decades and others which may not materialize at all?

To conduct the required balancing act effectively will require early planning and decision making that takes the long view. Yet historically human society has not been good at such approaches; our decision-making processes have often been slow to foresee and prepare for, change.

How can or should we adapt this entrenched, comfortable but increasingly risky way of planning for the future? What tools and approaches might be employed?

What historical examples of societies managing both short- and long-term risks might be applied to decision making for contending with climate change impacts? What would be the trade-offs involved?

The World Resources Report is seeking insight on these critical issues from some of the world's leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of development, environmental governance, and climate adaptation.

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Expert Perspectives

Johan Rockström: In seeking answers to the question of how to investing in solutions to pressing issues, while at the same time contributing to building long-term societal resilience, the author focuses on...» Read Full Paper

Frances Seymour: The author argues that while governments will face trade-offs in deciding how to respond to climate change, they should not lose sight of the opportunities to capture synergies between approaches...» Read Full Paper

Gro Harlem Brundtland: The author, former Prime Minister of Norway, argues that three approaches are particularly relevant for any leader wanting to strike a balance between the pressing needs of today and the decisions...» Read Full Paper

Mohamed El-Ashry: The author proposes for principles for adaptation strategies that can reconfigure development and economic growth strategies to take into account the climate challenge. Scale: Match responses to the...» Read Full Paper