Adapting to Climate Change

From Reason and Tech Central Station, continuing coverage of the COP10 negotiations in Buenos Aires


Buenos Aires—Delegates from the European Union and activist groups are celebrating the advent of the Kyoto Protocol, but both are beginning to realize that strategies aimed at mitigating projected global warming have just about run their course. The United States will not agree to binding limitations on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and neither will rapidly industrializing developing countries like China and India. The costs are just way too high in lost jobs and stalled economic growth. If these countries refuse to limit their use of fossil fuels, then there is no point in going forward with new treaties establishing limits on GHG emissions. So those worried about possible catastrophic global warming will have to resign themselves to figuring out how best to live with projected higher temperatures. And in fact this process is already happening.

"We are beginning to see more research on adaptation strategies in response to climate change," said Jonathan Pershing, a climate impacts analyst with the World Resources Institute. Pershing was speaking during a side event sponsored by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change at the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) 10th Conference of the Parties (COP-10). Pershing noted that up until now most climate policy research focused on ways to mitigate climate change impacts—that is, devising schemes aimed at lowering projected increases in the Earth's average temperature, usually by cutting back the use of fossil fuels. Pershing suggested that politicians have promoted research on mitigation strategies as a way to avoid admitting to the public that climate change impacts are or will soon be occurring.

Setting aside for the time being whether or not catastrophic global warming really lies in our future, floods, droughts, oceanic storm surges and wind storms will continue to afflict humanity. Consider two recent examples: a cyclone struck the Indian state of Orissa in 1999 destroying 2 million houses and killing 10,000 people and in 2004 three hurricanes hit Florida killing 116 people. The people of Orissa and Florida both suffered disasters, but there was big difference in their aftermaths. What makes people more or less vulnerable to weather disasters? Pershing cited the admittedly imperfect attempt by University of East Anglia risk researcher Neil Adger who has concocted a set of indicators of vulnerability and adaptive capacity.

Among other things, Adger uses data collected by the EM-DAT disaster database which is run by the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. EM-DAT collects data on calamities and their human and economic impact from around the world. Adger combines natural cataclysms like floods, droughts, hurricanes and the like with various measures of a country's capacity to adapt to the disasters. These measures include things sanitation, literacy, infant mortality, caloric intake, and life expectancy. Adger then calculates "vulnerability scores" ranging from 50 as most vulnerable to 10 as least vulnerable.

Some of the most vulnerable countries are Ethiopia (score 41), Burkina Faso (40), Pakistan (37), Haiti (37), Nepal (35) and Bangladesh (32). Not too surprisingly the least vulnerable countries are the United States (10), Australia (10), UK (11), Germany (11), and Canada (11). While Adiger's vulnerability scores surely correlate with things like life expectancy, sanitation, and literacy, there is also something else that vulnerability correlates strongly with—poverty. As measured in purchasing power parity in dollars, the countries with high vulnerability scores have very low gross domestic products per capita: Ethiopia ($700), Burkina Faso ($1,100), Pakistan ($2,100), Haiti ($1,600), Nepal ($1,400), and Bangladesh ($1,900). If something goes wrong the people living in the world's poorest countries have fewer material and social resources with which to respond and recover.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts: "The effects of climate change are expected to be greatest in the developing countries in terms of loss of life and relative effects on investment and the economy." The Christian Tearfund charity issued a report for COP-10 noting that "98 percent of those killed and affected by natural disasters come from developing countries, underlining the link between poverty and vulnerability to disaster." The Tearfund report added that in 2001 some 170 million people were affected by disasters. The three billion people living on less than $2 per day don't have much to fall back on in an emergency.

Consider the difference in the death tolls caused by a cyclone in Orissa and hurricanes in Florida. The United States has better early warning systems, more hospitals and paved roads, sturdier houses and better emergency response than does India (vulnerability score 30, average income, $2,900). All these things are made possible because Americans are wealthier than Indians: U.S. per capita annual GDP is $37,800.

In climate-speak some mitigation strategies aimed at cutting GHG emissions by limiting energy use are called "no regrets" proposals, that is, actions that a company or agency would take anyway that also results in GHG reductions, e.g., switching a power plant from coal to natural gas. It is past time to seriously consider "no regrets" strategies for adapting to climate change. No country would regret having better roads, hospitals, sanitation, sea walls, houses, access to electricity, communications and so forth. All of these things would make its citizens less vulnerable to whatever weather disasters a changing climate might bring. So how to implement a no regrets climate change adaptation strategy? The best way to do it is the old-fashioned way by encouraging economic growth and free trade to alleviate poverty, illiteracy, maternal and infant mortality, and so forth. For example, people living in the developing countries that have participated in the current wave of globalization by being more open to free markets and trade have been becoming richer. World Bank economist David Dollar has pointed out, "Between 1993 and 1998, the number of absolute poor in the globalizing developing countries declined by an estimated 120 million, while poverty increased in the rest of the developing world by 20 million." Indeed, Dollar adds, "China has seen the most dramatic poverty reduction in history."

It turns out that by liberalizing their economies, China and India are well on the way to reducing their vulnerability to any climate shocks. And now it's finally beginning to dawn on some of the delegates at COP-10 that becoming wealthier means becoming less vulnerable to climate change. That will turn out to be a no regrets policy to confront climate change that every country can support.