The world needs ways to adapt to climate change

Climate change is with us.

It is already damaging lives, livelihoods and nature’s life support systems. The natural disasters it is aggravating are killing people. The world has to adapt to inevitable climate change while working to prevent yet worse from happening.
If the weather is going to be more dangerous, we need to build into our world a new resilience to everything it can throw at us.

Many of the nations most in the firing line from climate change are those least responsible for it.
Around 100 countries account for about 3% of emissions.

They are poor and in parts of the world where the climate – already a dangerous beast – is becoming increasingly threatening.

The average emissions of some 150 million Bangladeshis are 1/60 of those of the average American. But that won’t protect them from rising sea levels, storm surges, salinated soils and more intense typhoons.

Typical of many African countries, the personal carbon footprint of the average citizen of Burundi is roughly the same as that of a Western householder’s TV in standby mode.  But climate change is predicted to cut the yields of their farms by 30% or more through drought and heat.

Vulnerable island states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans like Tuvalu and the Maldives face storm surges, coastal erosion and rising sea levels that may make them uninhabitable within the next half century.

Where do we expect the inhabitants of these islands to go?


Will the industrialized countries with the greatest responsibility for causing climate change give them refugee status?

And is it FAIR for them to be FORCED to move?

Developed countries have an obligation

Here too, developed countries have an obligation to fund adaptation among poor nations that are victims of climate change. International law, based on the well established “polluter-pays” principle, suggests there is a legal duty on major CO2 emitters to protect such countries.

A good starting point is the Adaptation Fund, the only fund established on climate change that is democratic, with proper representation for developing countries. Its main source of money is a 2% levy on the Clean Development Mechanism.

WWF says that is not enough.

After 8 years, the Adaptation Fund is still not operational. The industrialized countries, which are mainly responsible for climate change so far, have to accept their responsibilities by paying to protect the most vulnerable victims.

One way would be a “polluter pays” tax on airline tickets or a levy on shipping. In addition, countries need to create an international insurance mechanism to help victims of climate disasters.

Past broken promises

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the 48 least developed nations were provided with money to draw up National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs).

The idea was to identify the most urgent actions needed, such as making glacial lakes in mountain regions safe, or shoring up coastal defences.

A fund was established at the Global Environment Facility. To date, 39 NAPAs have been completed and 9 more soon will be. But there is no money to carry them out.

As a result, only a handful of specific projects identified in the programmes have been drawn up in detail and submitted for cash. The programme has stalled. The promises made by industrialized countries to fund adaptation to climate change in countries that are least to blame sound hollow.
Satellite image / ©: NASA
Hurricame Katrina on the southern coast of the USA
© NASA

...the personal carbon footprint of the average citizen of Burundi is roughly the same as that of a Western householder’s TV in standby mode.

HOW adaptation CAN work

Sometimes people need engineering urgently.

As the Himalayan glaciers melt, huge lakes of meltwater form in narrow valleys behind often flimsy natural dams made of debris. As the lakes fill, they can become unstable and eventually the dams break, unleashing a wave of water down the valley.

Bhutan has more than 2,000 glacial lakes, of which 24 have been identified as candidates at risk of causing sudden floods.

It needs engineers to assess the lakes and drain them before disaster strikes.

People need early warning & help preparing for disaster

Rising sea levels leave coastal zones ever more vulnerable to high tides and storms that can wash away whole communities.

Bangladesh lost 138,000 people in a cyclone in 1991. Since then, it has done a lot to make its citizens safe by building flood shelters on top of dykes. What it now needs is better cyclone warning systems so that people know when to head for the shelters.


People need good & applicable science

As climate changes, tens of millions of subsistence farmers will need new seeds so that they can resist higher temperatures and longer droughts. Parts of southern Africa already face reductions in crop yields of 30% or more, unless their crops are made more drought tolerant and thus climate proof.

As diseases spread with climate change, new vaccination programmes will also be needed for farm animals as well as humans.

Ecosystem-based adaptation

Often what is most needed is the protection of ecosystems that buffer climate change and its effects. Nature provides many ecosystem services for us. Using nature is often the cheapest way to protect coasts from storms and rising tides.

For 15 years now, Vietnamese communities organized by local chapters of the Red Cross Association have been planting mangrove forests on shores most vulnerable to typhoons. Mangroves break up waves and absorb storm energy. In 2000, when typhoon Wukong hit, areas that had been planted remained safe, while neighbouring provinces suffered badly, with broken houses and dead bodies littering the shoreline. So far, 12,000 hectares have been planted at a cost of about US$1 million, SAVING an estimated US$7 million in bills for maintaining dykes.

Inland, rainforests stabilize soils, protecting against lethal landslides after storms. They also stabilize river flows, generate rain and protect against droughts.

Brazilian agriculture and rainforests are often seen as competing for land. But the farms need the rainforests, because they provide the rain on which the farms depend. Remove the forests and everything will turn to wasteland.

WWF says nations need to make a special effort to maximize the benefits of ecosystem-based adaptation. It will probably deliver the best value for  money.

Protecting this natural infrastructure is at least as important as maintaining infrastructure like roads and coastlines.

I can still hear the loud roar that came before the waters from Dig Tsho lake crashed past my home. The lake filled with water from a melting glacier and it suddenly burst. I was just a teenager then. We watched as the water mangled 14 suspension bridges and damaged many of our homes and businesses. 5 people died in our village. Today I rely on income from tourists who come to my lodge. I doubt that my family would be able to recover from another flood.

Ang Maya Sherpa, Nepal

 / ©: WWF-Canon / NEYRET & BENASTAR
The Gokyo wetlands are threatened by pollution and the potential danger of glacial lake outburst floods caused in part by global warming. Gokyo Lake, Nepal.
© WWF-Canon / NEYRET & BENASTAR

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