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New Voices: On Climate Change Adaptation
New Voices is The Washington Spectator's blog series by guest writers under age 25. The series spotlights a diversity of perspectives from students, journalists, artists, and activists. Interested in writing for this series? E-mail inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Given this year of bizzare weather events in the U.S.—including Hurricane Sandy and a summer of deadly heat waves, wildfires and storms—many in the U.S. are finally opening their eyes to what scientists have been telling them for years: Climate change is real, but not only that, it is happening now.
Climate change is no longer a theoretical danger; it is a tangible phenomenon that is striking worldwide. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of climate change lies in the fact that it affects first and foremost the world’s most vulnerable people, who are usually those who have done the least to cause climate change.
But you’ve heard all of this before. What you may not have heard of is the rising profile of a different side of climate change: adaptation. Efforts to combat climate change have been overwhelmingly focused on mitigating the phenomenon by reducing or sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists warn that the world's actions and current pledges to reduce emissions are wholly inadequate in avoiding warming on a catastrophic scale, but the harsh reality that we’re going to have to make some changes to adapt to a changing climate is settling in.
Until recently, talking about climate change adaptation was viewed as defeatist, a dangerous distraction from mitigating a warming planet by assuming that we can simply adapt. This attitude has led to the unfortunate situation of adaptation being both understudied and largely misunderstood.
So let’s clear some things up. What exactly is adaptation? The concept of adaptation comes from biology, but it shouldn’t be confused with social Darwinism nonsense. The goal of studying adaptation is to reduce the vulnerability of systems and the people in them, and that's closely tied to social and economic development.
When I hear people who are somewhat familiar with adaptation, I usually hear them talking about things like sea walls and floating gardens. While these Band-Aid solutions are technically considered adaptation, they misrepresent the vast majority of adaptation work that's going on.
In December 2008, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) launched the first major coordinated adaptation effort, called the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), intended to support the least developed countries by addressing their urgent and immediate adaptation needs.
These 60 projects have seen dismal implementation, largely due to the black hole that is access to climate finance, but they do give insight into the priorities of the world’s poorest countries for adaptation. The projects range from improving grain storage and distribution for periods of drought to restoring mangrove vegetation as a buffer zone against tropical storms. But the largest two sectors in terms of projects are food security and water resources management.
It is easy to only consider the dramatic image of rising sea levels making low-lying areas uninhabitable, but this doesn’t do justice to the pervasiveness of climate change, and gives the impression that adaptation isn’t yet urgent. Adaptation is really an integrated approach to development that considers the future risks that a community will face, and addresses them by making sure they are prepared and resilient enough to weather the storm, so to speak.
There is also another central question about climate adaptation, and that is how we will come to address loss and damage due to global environmental change. The UNFCCC is currently undergoing a work program to better understand the issue, and developing countries are pushing hard to create some sort of institutional mechanism that will help them address it.
The issue of loss and damage gets at the heart of some of the injustice in climate change. It forces us to ask questions: Who should pay for the loss and damage, those who created the problem or those who are suffering from it? The economic losses from the impacts of climate change will cost billions, and right now those losses will be borne by individual countries, without any support or compensation from polluters.
The U.S. and other rich nations are keen to set up insurance schemes that will allow them to make even more money out of climate change (see carbon markets), while countries like Bolivia and Timor-Leste are urging the U.N. to consider non-economic losses such as heritage sites, as well as the economic damage to, say, tourism and agriculture industries.
Depending on the resilience of a community, people will adapt will in a variety of different ways to climate change when driven to. This is why it is important to support adaptation proactively and not as a last-minute, temporary solution.
Building strong and resilient communities that are informed about and prepared for the challenges they will face is the only way to avoid catastrophe when the challenges of climate change hit. As became all too clear during hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, careless and underfunded disaster management leads to tragedy on a totally unnecessary scale.