When Climate Change Adaptation Isn’t Enough

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 18th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 18) is currently underway in Doha, Qatar.

Local boy wades through water to get to his flooded house near Santa Marta, Colombia.

Local boy wades through water to get to his flooded house near Santa Marta, Colombia. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)

This week in Doha marks five years since I began following climate change negotiations at COP 13 in Bali, Indonesia. My interest in climate change adaptation has spanned from the conceptual to the concrete, from assessing climate change impacts in the Caribbean to my current work on policy issues.

Although it’s clear that we are still grappling with many of the same issues as half a decade ago — such as how to fairly divide responsibility between developed and developing countries, and the scale and scope of measures — I’m pleased to see that within the climate change community, clear progress on adaptation has been made. Across the globe, many concrete adaptation projects have been successfully piloted and implemented. CI has led the way on many of these projects in countries such as Cambodia, Brazil and South Africa.

However, despite the progress made, climate impacts are continuing to intensify — and with the lack of ambition on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, we face the almost certain fate of accelerating climate change with increasingly frequent and extreme climate stress.

The question is: How can we avoid and reduce these impacts, and compensate or rehabilitate countries and communities for the losses that may be inevitable?

In the context of a warming world, it’s clear that adaptation is not foolproof, nor is there ample funding to ensure that adaptive actions can be undertaken at the global scale needed. It’s not only plausible, but probable that many adaptation efforts may fall short, not have the intended effect, or simply fail to be implemented — undermining development and threatening the livelihoods of billions.

In addition, some extreme impacts — both slow-onset events like sea level rise and disasters such as hurricanes and droughts — are just too severe to adapt to or anticipate. Corals under stress from warming ocean temperatures are suffering massive bleaching and being lost forever. Farmers are losing crop yields in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa due to drought. Rising seas are eroding shores where communities reside in small island states like Kiribati. Freshwater provisioning services are being lost in sensitive ecosystems. And around the world, livelihoods that rely on agriculture are being threatened, and sometimes lost.

From conditions like these, it’s evident that climate change impacts are causing real damage to infrastructures, ecosystems, economies and livelihoods, and it’s imperative that we explore how these losses can be avoided and mitigated.

We do not have to accept a world characterized by losses. Instead, we can win by increasing ambition on mitigating the root cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions. We can win by continuing to build the capacity of communities across the globe to adapt to climate impacts. And we can win by ensuring that negotiations here at COP 18 adequately recognize the reality of “loss and damage” by establishing an international mechanism to further explore the issue and potential rehabilitation and compensation measures. This will ensure that even if losses occur despite our best mitigation and adaptation efforts, we will have a system in place that provides insurance to those in need, compensates them and supports the rehabilitation process.

Negotiations initiated under the Cancun Adaptation Framework in 2010 under loss and damage have already catalyzed extensive work under a work program. Although more work is required to fully understand the range of approaches required and the role of risk management, a mechanism that recognizes the reality of loss and damage and provides an international space to address it will, to a large extent, measure the success of this meeting.

As we move forward, adaptation must continue at a greater scale to avoid irreparable losses to economies and ecosystems. Through adaptation and an international mechanism on loss and damage, we can make significant progress and prevent future harm.

Shyla Raghav

Shyla Raghav

I remain hopeful that by applying everything we’ve learned about adaptation over recent years — by empowering marginalized communities, enhancing resilience and preserving critical ecosystems — we can achieve fewer losses, and more wins.

Shyla Raghav is senior manager for climate change adaptation policy in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace. Learn more about CI’s engagement at COP 18.


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