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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.

Why care about COP18?

With the annual spectacle of the UN Climate Change Conference (this year it’s COP18, in Qatar) kicking off on 26 November, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of exactly what is at stake. 

Our concern about climate change is prone to fluctuate. Recent polls show that many people in Western countries have become steadily less concerned about climate change over the last few years. It may be wishful thinking to hope that tropical storm Sandy will make any lasting difference to this. With so few signs of progress internationally, even committed activists could be forgiven for losing some drive or being tempted to focus on other seemingly more winnable issues. As someone who has worked on climate change for the last eight years I have myself struggled at times to remain motivated.

Part of the problem is that the worst impacts of climate change tend to always be in the future and in distant places. It is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many of us. While we may know rationally that climate change is a big deal, the threat can often feel abstract and theoretical. Other issues which impact our everyday lives more directly, such as the financial crisis, can appear more urgent.

This is perhaps why a recent trip to some farming communities in the highlands of Bolivia proved to be such a powerful reminder for me of just what is at stake. For the communities that live on the steep slopes of Illimani, Bolivia’s second-highest mountain, the impacts of climate change are already a reality.

BertaIn recent years local people have had to contend with the arrival of new pests and diseases and the increased frequency of hail storms which destroy their young crops. Most worrying is the melting of Illimani’s glaciers, which for five months of the year (including during the crucial planting season) are the main water source. The small Sajhuaya River brings the melt water cascading down from high above before it is channelled into a system of irrigation channels. The local people, such as Berta Mamani (right) from the Cellubollu community, fear for the future. ‘Lots of things are happening here,’” she tells me, ‘but our biggest worry is Illimani, as we live from that. Illimani is everything. Little by little it is melting away.’

It is alarming to think that these impacts are already so apparent with global temperatures having risen barely 0.8°C since pre-industrial times. The current trajectory of global emissions puts us in line for a four-degree, or even six-degree increase this century. With such extreme levels of warming it is doubtful that much of Illimani’s glaciers would survive.  

With everyone here almost completely reliant on what they grow to eat and sell, the loss of these glaciers poses nothing less than an existential threat to their way of life. Many people here fear they will be forced to abandon their farms and communities and move to the crowded cities of La Paz and El Alto. ‘The people will go to the city. They will migrate because there won’t be anything to work with. With what are we going to survive?’ asks Hugo Gutierrez from the Granja community.

The local people I speak with are not well versed in the science of climate change or the details of international negotiations, but they are worried by the changes they see and those that they fear may be on the way. Quite literally, everything they have is now at risk and they find themselves at the mercy of other people’s decisions and actions, over which they have no control. They hope that those in distant countries, for whom climate change is not such an immediate concern, do not forget what is at stake. Those most vulnerable to climate change may be out of sight for most of us, but they must not be left out of mind.  

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.

Look out for a follow-up blog from Ben in December, when he will look at the role of adaptation to climate change in Bolivia. He will ask whether the rise of the adaptation agenda within international negotiations gives cause for optimism for vulnerable communities or whether, as many Bolivian campaigners suspect, it offers false hope.