Adapting to Climate Change: No Time to Waste
By Mohamed El-Ashry, Senior Fellow, UN Foundation; Chairman & CEO Emeritus, Global Environment Facility
Question Seven: How can we meet both today's development challenges and tomorrow's climate risks?
The author proposes four principles for adaptation strategies that can reconfigure development and economic growth strategies to take into account the climate challenge. (1) Scale: Match responses to the growing numbers of people in danger. (2) Speed: Waste no time because climate change is happening faster than predicted. (3) Focus: Manage risk, build the resilience of the world's poorest citizens, and enhance the ecosystem functions they depend on. (4) Integration: Recognize the relationships among environment, development and climate change, and manage synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation.
All countries have a legitimate right to economic development, but that need not conflict with strategies to address climate change. National responses to the climate challenge must harmonize strategies for economic growth and poverty alleviation with ambitious emissions reductions. Without urgent and concerted action, climate change will seriously affect the way of life in all countries.
Climate change will bring far-ranging adverse impacts some of which are already being felt. Given this certainty, adaptation must be an integral component of an effective strategy to address climate change, along with mitigation. The two are intricately linked—the more we mitigate, the less we have to adapt. However, even if substantial efforts are undertaken to reduce further greenhouse gas emissions, some degree of climate change is unavoidable.
Importantly and sadly, climate change will have significant impacts on development, poverty alleviation, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in those countries most vulnerable. Hard-fought progress made in achieving these global goals may be slowed or even reversed by climate change as new threats emerge to water and food security, agricultural production, nutrition, and public health. Countries and regions that fail to adapt will contribute to global insecurity through the spread of disease, conflicts over resources, and a destabilization of the economic system.
Four Principles for Adaptation Strategies
Climate change thus provides both an obligation and an opportunity to reconfigure development strategies so that they meet the needs of the present generation without compromising future generations’ abilities to meet their needs. Accordingly, adaptation strategies should be evaluated by the following four principles:
• Scale: Match responses to the growing numbers of people in danger.
• Speed: Waste no time because climate change is happening faster than predicted.
• Focus: Manage risk, build the resilience of the world’s poorest citizens, and enhance the ecosystem functions they depend on.
• Integration: Recognize the relationships among environment, development and climate change, and manage synergies and trade-offs between mitigation and adaptation.
The world’s poor, who have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, will suffer the worst impacts of climate change and have the least capacity to adapt. In these vulnerable communities, climate change could erase the gains from many years of development efforts, causing repeated food crises, and threatening large populations with chronic hunger and disease.
Since some 70 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas, particularly in Asia and Africa, where subsistence farmers depend on rain for their harvests, effective adaptation to climate change in these areas will be critical to attaining the MDGs by 2015.
Of all the impacts likely to be visited on the most susceptible nations, those that threaten human health are the most insidious, as those impacts threaten virtually every aspect of a society. Many low-income countries with populations at the greatest risk from climate change are already overwhelmed with existing public health challenges stemming from treatable conditions such as malnutrition, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, malaria, and other infectious diseases.
These conditions present those governments with terrible choices. Diverting limited personnel and resources away from these ongoing problems to address future threats from climate change could make things worse instead of better. However, if the international community makes a serious commitment to help lower-income countries adapt to the health threats from climate change through improving basic health services, it will also help those countries address challenges that have been an ongoing scourge to their economies and their people.
The developed world thus faces a daunting future that promises human tragedy and political unrest in countries that had no role in the circumstances that now threaten them. And like the developing world, the developed world faces the same quandary between acting now to help nations adapt to the new future, even as they are asked to increase their development assistance to meet current, pressing needs.
Let’s be clear: adaptation is about building resilience and reducing vulnerability. Adaptation is not simply a matter of designing projects or putting together lists of measures to reduce the impacts of climate change. National policy responses should be anticipatory, not reactive, and should be anchored in a country’s framework for economic growth and sustainable development, and integrated with its poverty reduction strategies. This way, necessary short-term actions and long-term planning can both be accommodated.
And national governments bear the responsibility to develop and implement integrated policies and programs that build the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of their populations, emphasizing preventive local actions, to manage the risks associated with the impacts of climate change.
But the international community must accept the burden of ensuring these countries have the skills and the resources to devise and implement such policies. Programs imposed from the outside, no matter how well intentioned, will not enjoy broad public acceptance. And that acceptance will be crucial as adaptation strategies begin to require small and large changes in how people live.
The science is clear—climate impacts are being felt today and greater impacts are unavoidable tomorrow. The disproportionate vulnerability of LDCs creates a moral imperative for the developed world to provide immediate support for adaptation in these countries.