Adapting to Climate Change: Pay Now or Pay Much More Later

11/11/2010 05:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In North America the media's coverage of climate change, and its perpetuation of the nonsensical debate between believers and deniers, has taken center stage. But we would do well to remember that this debate is largely irrelevant in countries being hit by the first wave of climate change. Saleemul Huq, who was based in London before returning to Bangladesh earlier this year to lead an institute for climate adaptation, recently told me that from where he sits in Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries to climate change impacts, "climategate" and other coverage of climate change denying media have absolutely no resonance. Bangladesh, and indeed in much of the developing world, can see that the climate has already changed and are having to adapt to those changes already. Thus the climate change story in much of the developing world is not whether climate change is real but why the rich countries who are primarily responsible for most of the accumulated greenhouse gases that are responsible for current temperature rises still refuse to do anything about it.

"Doing something about it" would require that developed countries collectively reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2020 (below 1990 levels) and provide sufficient short and long term finance for developing countries to both help them mitigate their own emissions and adapt to a monumental problem not of their making.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to do his part by kick-starting a process to identify new and innovative sources of finance. He established an advisory group of economic experts, and their report came out last week. The good news is, as two of its members Trevor Manuel and Nicholas Stern commented in The Guardian this week, "The group's report concluded that the goal of raising $100bn a year for developing countries is feasible if the political will is there."

Looking at this report through the adaptation lens, however, here is what Saleem had to say:

It made some interesting suggestions on where and how to raise the $100 billion a year from 2020 onwards. However, it is very disappointing that they seem to have completely ignored a major proposal submitted on behalf of the group of 50 poorest and most vulnerable developing countries (namely the least developed countries group) for an International Air Passenger Adaptation Levy (IAPAL) which could raise between $10 and "$15 billion a year for adaptation by putting a very modest "adaptation levy" (of around $5 - $10 per ticket) on all international passengers.

While the advisory group focused primarily on long-term strategies, short-term finance -- one of the most important commitments made by governments last year in Copenhagen -- started to flow.

Looking at the commitments so far through an adaptation lens, however, is more like looking into a mirror in a carnival fun house -- the image is so twisted and distorted that if it weren't so sad it would be comical. According to a recent report by the World Development Movement:

..of the money committed so far, 42 per cent is to be given to the World Bank, 47 per cent is to be given to programmes which will give loans, and less than 1 per cent is to be given to the UN Adaptation Fund.

Loans? For adaptation? Isn't that a bit like burning down your neighbor's house and then lending him the money to rebuild it? Perhaps it's this lack of accountability on the part of the developed world that explains a bizarre finding in a survey earlier this year which shows that most Africans blame themselves for climate change despite being responsible for only 4% of global emissions.

Development organizations such as Oxfam are calling on governments to establish a new climate fund in Cancun:

We need governments... to establish a 'one-stop shop' fund that will see climate finance distributed efficiently, transparently and based on the needs of the poor people receiving it.

The other adaptation litmus test for governments in Cancun will be whether they face up to the fact that there will be unavoidable significant loss and damage as a result of climate change and establish a solid institutional foundation for dealing with it.

Looking at climate change through the adaptation lens also can and should be empowering.
For those in the richest countries, it should provide a powerful moral and emotional incentive -- it's about doing the right thing. Adaptation projects help improve the livelihoods of poor communities. And for those motivated by less noble considerations, investing in adaptation at home and abroad makes good economic sense. It helps prevent future disasters that will ultimately come home to roost. Pay now, or pay much more later.

For those in vulnerable developing countries, there are inspiring leaders who couple their call for support with demonstrated action of their own. Just this week, vulnerable countries came together in the small island nation of Kiribati to discuss how to get out in front of these issues.

The Maldives, for example, has had to relocate people from 16 islands due to coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to freshwater supplies. But it's not waiting on an international climate deal before taking action, pledging to go carbon neutral by 2020 -- and in the long run saving money to boot. As President Nasheed noted in a recent interview with the Washington Post,

We need to act now. I know the Maldives going carbon neutral is not going to change the world. It will save us a whole lot of foreign currency [which we spend buying fossil fuels from other countries.] ... We believe it is possible to find a low-carbon development strategy that can be mapped in a way to other developing countries. It is not too late to mend our ways.

The efforts of individuals like President Nasheed should be a moral wake up call for leaders in the developed world. If a country that bears no blame for the climate crisis can take decisive action to mitigate its impacts, where does our duty lie?