Monday, September 15, 2008

Adapting to Climate Change: Can We Do It Again?

Dangerous climate change will not be prevented by reduced emissions. The damage is already done. For many vulnerable societies, the priority must be adaptation.
About 15 million years ago, dense African forests began drying up to be replaced by open savannah. Tree-dwelling primates eventually descended and found that the new environment suited walking.

Humanity has been adapting more or less successfully to climate changes ever since. After the last ice age ended between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, agriculture and urban settlements developed and humans gradually colonized all but the most hostile environments. But our transformation of the environment is now coming back to haunt us. Man-made climate change is rapidly increasing temperatures and sea levels, altering rainfall patterns, and producing more violent storms.

“People and species have always adapted to changing climates,” say Kit Vaughan, a WWF advisor on climate change adaptation. “What is different is the speed and the scale of the change we are facing.”

The areas most at risk are small islands, dry areas in Africa, large river deltas in Asia, and polar regions. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) identified 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change. The vast majority are poor countries, many crowded with people living on vulnerable floodplains or drought-prone badlands. Whether an individual, an economy, or a society can deal with the impacts of climate change depends on its adaptive capacity.

“Take Holland, it has a very strong economy, but is very low lying,” says Vaughan. “So it has high risks, but a very high adaptive capacity. They can build dikes and pumps. Bangladesh has an equally high level of risk, but a very small adaptive capacity.”

Adaptive capacity involves a complex combination of knowledge, institutions, technology, and money – ingredients that are scarce in poor countries. The IIED says these countries will need billions of dollars a year to adapt.

Without successful adaptation, however, the World Bank projects, the costs of climate change could be up to 100 billion dollars a year, pushing poor countries further into poverty. And the poorer they become, the less they can adapt. The IIED warns of “chronic famine or forced migration of tens of millions of people,” citing the example of Africa and Asia’s coastal areas and river deltas. (
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