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The growing urgency of adapting to climate change

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Extreme weather. Water crises. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. In a world where the climate is changing, all three of these are becoming more likely, more frequent and more devastating. This is why they are cited, alongside the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, as some of the most pressing dangers facing the world, according to the closely watched annual Global Risks Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF).

It is telling that the report, which is based on the views of hundreds of business people, experts and decision makers, refers to a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation: it is when communities cannot successfully adapt to the effects of a changing climate that crises result.

No choice but to adapt

Sadly, these crises are already occurring. The Global Risks Report notes that, of the 31.1 million people displaced during 2016, three-quarters were forced from their homes by weather-related events. Drought and its effects on agricultural have been linked to conflict in Darfur and Syria. Floods across south Asia killed more than 1,200 people last year. Wildfires across southern Europe and the US took dozens of lives and cost billions of dollars.

The truth is that, even if we meet the more ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level, we will still suffer the effects of a changing climate for decades to come. We have no choice but to adapt.

Another harsh reality is that those who have benefited least from burning fossil fuels to power their economies – the world’s poorest developing countries – are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts and are the least able to adapt.

Until recently, the international climate negotiations have focused almost exclusively on climate change mitigation. There is no doubt that we must rapidly and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that global warming does not lead to change that will exceed the limits of what communities and ecosystems can adapt to. Unfortunately, however, the long prioritization of mitigation action means that adaptation has not received the due attention and resources it increasingly needs.

And, just as our collective failure to mitigate climate change means we now have to adapt to its effects, similarly our failure to build climate resilience through effective adaptation means that communities are suffering loss and damage for which they cannot be held responsible.

Carrying the cost of loss and damage

There is a growing recognition of the need to provide finance for loss and damage caused by climate change. Progress on the issue at COP23 in Bonn last year was disappointing, but discussions will be resumed by an expert dialogue in May, under the Warsaw International Mechanism.

There is a strong case for the rich world to fund adaptation efforts and provide finance for loss and damage as the effects of climate change become more severe. Supporting poor countries in the face of climate change, and helping to ensure their stability and prosperity, brings benefits to the entire global community.

What we’re doing

At WWF, we are working to embed climate-informed decisions into planning processes at the local, national and international levels to ensure benefits to people and nature.

Locally, our projects seek to build climate resilience of both ecosystems and communities. We are helping governments draw up national adaptation plans that take a holistic view of the response to climate change, ones that consider the importance of healthy, functioning ecosystems as well as the needs of vulnerable people.

In our international work, we are helping to define robust and adequate international adaptation and loss and damage architecture within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. We are also seeking to secure sufficient adaption and loss and damage funding for developing countries.

None of the above is to argue for any diversion from the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; indeed, that effort needs to be redoubled. But it is clear that the world will also have to find the resources to help vulnerable communities and ecosystems adapt to climate change, and to address loss and damage from its effects.

Sandeep Chamling Rai is Senior Advisor, Global Climate Adaptation Policy, based in Singapore.  

Shaun Martin is Senior Director, Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience, based in Washington DC.

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