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Climate adaptation: saviour or false hope?

RainbowWith the failure to deliver emissions reductions and recent projections suggesting very significant warming is now possible, has the idea of adapting to the impacts of climate change come of age? Or could the adaptation agenda be a red herring, as many Bolivians fear?   

In recent years, adaptation has become a key focus of international climate change negotiations. Once a fringe issue, it is now at the centre of the climate debate. The pledge by developed countries to raise $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020 (with much of this for adaptation in developing countries) was one of the few positives to come out of the much derided Copenhagen COP meeting in 2009. Much of this year’s negotiations in Doha have also been focused on the question of funding.

On the one hand this could be seen as an encouraging sign that the COP process may yet deliver some tangible results for those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A couple of weeks ago I reported from farming communities in the mountains of Bolivia, where climate change is already a reality. Such communities urgently need support to help them adapt to the changes that are underway. Yet many Bolivian civil society groups remain unconvinced that a growing focus on adaptation within international negotiations offers much reason for optimism.

For activists such as Martin Vilela from the Bolivian Climate Change Platform the pledges of adaptation support are all too often ‘empty promises’. He doubts that significant resources will ever arrive and says that the ambiguity of the $100 billion figure ‘does not offer any kind of clear commitment (on adaptation financing)’. Martin points to the way developed countries are already trying to ‘reduce expectations’ and are blaming the economic crisis for not being able to provide more funds. Recent research by IIED seems to support Martin’s reservations, showing that adaptation finance has been inadequate to date, with many donors simply relabelling pre-existing aid as climate finance – so it is not in fact ‘new and additional’, as was promised at Copenhagen.

Even if significant new adaptation funds were to arrive, Martin worries that with the current emission trajectories suggesting four or even six degrees warming this century, adaptation efforts are ‘going to be insufficient’ to deal with the severity of the damages. He explains that ‘with these scenarios [of four degrees warming or more] there isn’t going to be any adaptation infrastructure that will be capable of limiting the impacts of climate change, as the climate’s variability – the imbalances, the rains, the droughts – is going to be so severe that it will be very difficult to plan adaptation actions.’  

While Martin does not doubt the important role that adaptation activities can play within Bolivia, he is concerned that the growing international emphasis on adaptation could paradoxically act to reduce the pressure on developed countries to reduce their emissions. ‘The whole issue of climate change is becoming limited to a focus on adaptation, which means they are not tackling the structural causes of climate change,’ he says.  

Despite the lack of progress with international negotiations to date, for Martin and many other Bolivian activists it is essential that the emphasis remains firmly on delivering cuts in emissions so that the worst-case warming scenarios are avoided. Ely Peredo of Fundación Solón explains that ‘it is fundamental that we begin to change the development paradigm. It is very difficult to see how, by only obtaining funds for adaptation, we are going to resolve the problem. Even if we get funds for adaptation the problem is going to continue, if we do not change radically the way we currently live and coexist together.’   

For many in Bolivia, climate change is already a reality which means adaptation activities are a practical necessity. However, many Bolivians hope that provision of international adaptation funding will not become a substitute or distract from the urgency of reducing emissions – which is what they feel their country really needs from the international community.

Ben Castle is a researcher on climate change issues for the Democracy Center in Bolivia. He has worked previously as a climate change policy adviser for a range of UK government agencies and think tanks. He holds an MSc in Climate Change and Development from the Institute of Development Studies.

Further reading: New Internationalist April 2012 issue: Adapt or Die

Photo: Averain under a CC Licence.

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