COP Conference of the Parties

Why Development should focus on Climate Adaptation

This Op Ed originally appeared on May 4, 2016

Just as climate change disproportionately affects the poor,

so must efforts to reduce its toll.

One of the biggest threats to a thriving world today is that the world’s poorest people face disproportionate risk from climate change. The World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat report notes that climate change threatens to erode progress made on reducing poverty, while a Stanford studyreveals that global incomes for 2100 could be 23 percent lower than they would be in a world without climate change. While it is sobering that over the past 30 years one dollar out of every three spent on development has been lost as a result of climate risk, the long-term impact of lower incomes relates to shrinking global markets and thus has impact on economies around the world.

For leaders working on development issues in least-developed and lower-income countries, these trends call for more resources to support climate adaptation, such as improving water security through conservation and modernizing infrastructure to withstand extreme storms.

A trifecta of global influence has identified adaptation as a key climate action strategy for national and local governments, the private sector, and donors: the Paris Climate Agreement, which mentions adaptation more frequently than mitigation; the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, which prioritize adaptation; and Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, which calls out the imbalance between the global north and south in a climate-changed world.

In an average year, climate change affects more than one out of five people. Scientists from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, a climate adaptation think tank I lead at the University of Notre Dame, have calculated that people living in the least-developed countries have 10 times greater chance of being affected by a climate disaster than those in wealthy countries. They also have calculated that it will take more than 100 years for lower-income countries to reach upper-income countries’ current level of capacity to adapt to changes in climate.

Climate change disproportionately harms the poor in wealthy countries, too.

Not only that, theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that while climate change heavily burdens the poor, it also worsens preexisting poverty by exacerbating the effects of other poverty causes, such as loss or erosion of physical and financial assets, including land, housing and jobs. Take Africa as an example: In 2015 alone, the continent faced about 50 events that were influenced by climate change — such as droughts, wildfires, landslides, extreme temperatures and floods — as calculated by the International Disaster Database at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. These events affected more than 20 million people, killed 1,139 and created damages amounting to more than US$2.5 billion. Such events and changes to historical trends are likely to worsen the symptoms of poverty. One likely outcome is decreased production of staple foods in many of the poorest regions — by up to 50 percent by 2020 in some African countries — increasing malnutrition and undernutrition, which currently cause 3.1 million deaths in children under five every year around the world.

Climate change disproportionately harms the poor in wealthy countries, too. Superstorm Sandy was one of the most expensive extreme weather events in history, costing corporations and governments more than US$40 billion. According to a report by Rutgers University, although registration for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance by ALICE households (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, which means they are above the poverty line but still not financially stable) exceeded registrations by non-ALICE households by 13,000, FEMA provided US$61 million more to non-ALICE households. Of the homeowners who applied for assistance, only 10 percent of ALICE applicants had received relief by February 2013 as opposed to 26 percent of all household owner applicants. Even after this relief, disparities remain. While ALICE households received some other help — through public assistance, private insurance and nonprofits — as a group they’re still left with $2.2 billion worth of residential damage and lost income that’s likely to stay unrelieved.

With hazards and vulnerabilities in mind, leaders can create strategies that increase adaptive capacities, especially for those most sensitive to climate hazards, including the world’s poorest citizens.

Climate adaptation requires several basic steps. First, leaders in government, the private sector and philanthropy should examine the relative hazards based on climate models for areas relevant to their work. Then they should identify adaptive capacities that are lacking and creating the greatest risk based on those exposures. ND-GAIN can help, identifying which countries are most prepared — including resource constraints — to handle and adapt to global challenges brought about by climate disruption. Other helpful resources include the World Economic Forum’sGlobal Competitiveness Report, an assessment of the economic drivers of countries’ productivity and wealth, which helps determine viable markets for corporate investment in projects in other countries, and the World Resources Institute’sAqueduct, which identifies water risks around the world.

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With hazards and vulnerabilities in mind, leaders can create strategies that increase adaptive capacities, especially for those most sensitive to climate hazards, including the world’s poorest citizens. Increasing access to electricity, water and sanitation and improving community health-care options are further examples of the dozens of adaptation actions available. Quickly, leaders will see that not only are there parts of their current efforts they can claim are adaptation — which will burnish their brand and inspire further effort — but there are numerous collateral benefits to adaptation: lifting more out of poverty, strengthening economies, preventing civil conflict, buttressing food security, protecting natural resources and ensuring a brighter future for generations to come.

WEF's Global Risk Report: Clarion Call for Adaptation

WEF Global Risks of Highest Concern 2016

WEF Global Risks of Highest Concern 2016

In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report concentrates on the likelihood and impact of environmental and societal risks. Three of the top five most likely risks are environmental, including failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation ranking as 3rd most likely and as the most potentially impactful. This year is the first time in almost ten years that an environmental risk has ranked first in terms of impact. Water crises and involuntary migration also rank in the top five for most impactful risks in 2016.  

Over time, climate-related issues have increasingly ranked higher in potential impact and likelihood of occurrence in this vanguard report.. These risks feature prominently in the highest concern list for the next 18 months. And, with a longer term view over the next ten years all five of the risks of highest concern relate to climate change: water crisis, failure of mitigation and adaptation, extreme weather events, food crisis and profound social instability importance of climate-related events.

The report presents many risks that are interconnected, such that they may be mitigated or aggravated by the same action or event. Climate change, as a trend, is heavily weighted, indicating strong connections with many other risks, including extreme weather events, water crises, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem collapse. These data indicate a need for nations, as well as businesses and local governments, to collaborate to address climate change – especially to implement and measure adaptation projects.

Important questions are now presented to the world. Climate change must clearly become a global priority, but what is the best way to go about both mitigating it and, adapting to it?  Some of those questions were addressed in the Paris Decision and Agreement, where a mitigation target is on par with not only a global adaptation goal, but also the humbling Loss and Damage. With Loss and Damage an official part of the agreement and the educated elite that participate in WEF’s survey defining major risks as the lack of adaptive capacity, there is a resounding clarion call to create adaptation actions in water and food security today that save lives and improve livelihoods.

Thanks to Patricia Holland, ND-GAIN Intern, for her help with this blog.

COP's Legacy: A New Era

This blog appeared on Triple Pundit on 15/12/15 At a private event Wednesday in Paris, Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, noted two significant differences between the 21st Conference of the Parties that ended Friday and previous COPs. One, the role of non-state actors – the private sector and others not under state direction – and, two, the emphasis placed on finance.

These are heartening changes for an incredibly bureaucratic process that to many celebrates its coming-of-age 21st birthday with so little past progress. I would add another difference to Bakker’s list: These climate talks differed substantially from the prior ones because they gave audience to resilience. Not only was the first resilience day held as an official part of the two-week conference, but the final agreement released Saturday includes the word adaptation more frequently than the word mitigation.

The mood for adaptation has changed, too. Perhaps this reflects that even the well-off countries are experiencing climate change. Notre Dame Global Adaptation Indexscientists calculate that those living in upper-income countries have a 10 percent chance of experiencing a climate-related event in 2016. That contrasts to a 1-in-5 chance in lower-income countries, which are a century behind the level of resilience (aka adaptive capacity) of upper-income countries.

As many of us dig deeper into our sustainability work, we are aware of this inequity, and we feel the moral responsibility – the ethical drive – to address the humanitarian challenge of our time. This determination, while acknowledging the incontrovertible role of aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation, also naturally draws us to the new era of climate change: adaptation.

It is a humbling era that requires significant responsibility from us and our brethren around the world. Still, the two themes that the WBCSD’s Bakker elucidated – enhanced engagement from corporations and cities, and forthright inclusion of climate action finance – suggest we are in a good place from which to act for the betterment of humanity.

COP21's Outcome: Adapt or Bust

This blog appeared on Triple Pundit 21/12/15 As the Paris climate negotiations closed Saturday, you heard a great deal of hope and optimism as well as congratulations for vision and progress emanating from COP21. Indeed, important commitments have been made – but they’re pledges, not actions, and they don’t reverse the adverse climate change underway.

Which is why adaptation is more important than ever.

Among conference influencers, I heard many reasons against adaptation. Such projects aren’t bankable, contended the head of Regions20, a United Nations investor collaboration. Mitigation is more interesting, maintained a global nonprofit agriculture sustainability advocate. And from the United Nation’s adaptation chief: Lessening greenhouse gases is the only thing insurance companies should spend money on.

But these leaders, among the most active climate actors at the historic conference, postpone adaptation at their peril – and so does the rest of the world. Consider the warnings that sound so loudly from Stanford and Berkeley calculations: Global incomes could decline 23 percent by 2100 relative to a world without climate change. And by 2030, annual costs of adaptation could be $150-300 billion a year, by the UN’s own estimate. .

UN officials acknowledge that even in the best-case scenarios of greenhouse gas mitigation under the agreement, climate change will persist for at least three-to-four decades. So much for helping the health and safety of our children and grandchildren.

On the other hand, one group that seemed willing to consider adaptation at COP21 was the private sector:

  1. The sustainability director of Mars Inc. notes that he often starts discussions with climate adaptation in discussions when conferring with his government hosts about doing chocolate business in Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria.
  2. An executive of nonprofit health plan Kaiser Permanente defined his role as climate adaptive in supporting human resilience.
  3. Investment firm South Pole Carbon, leveraging its growth in mitigation markets, has seen exponential growth in its developing-country water purification adaptation investment partnership.
  4. PepsiCo, a historic adaptation leader, continues to innovate throughout its food-and-beverage supply chain.
  5. The UN Global Compact had the courage and foresight to release a paper of adaptation best practices at its Caring for Climate business forum. ND-GAIN participated in creating The Business case for Responsible Corporate Adaptation

The biggest adapters at the COP21 negotiations seemed to be – wait for it – the United States government, which Thursday pledged $800 million for adaptation.

As I joined other tired souls exiting the climate talks and onto the crowded bus to the metro station, I thought to myself: Adapt or Bust. For while I share hope that countries will make good on the significant commitments emanating from COP21, I’m a pragmatist. I recognize from similar pledges made in both private and local government sectors over the years that the best of intentions differs from impact. And making good on mitigation commitments can be slow, failure-prone work.

Still, recognizing the important mitigation actions galvanized by COP21, I’m encouraged that the private sector is opening doors to new markets, creating collateral benefits, building efficiencies and innovating for adaptation. Well beyond the hope and promise of the Paris Agreement, private sector voices will help ensure that extreme events do not become disasters.

The Paris Agreement: A Not Bad Outcome Compels Corporate Action

This post appeared on 9 December 2015 on the RANE Network  

As the Paris Climate Talks enter the final frenzied hours attempting to come to an agreement about mitigation targets for the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, how to finance needed mitigation and adaptation to meet those targets, and what to do with loss and damage from unavoidable climate change, I reflect on three important and timely elements of COP21 related to the corporate sector:

  1. Business does not fit in much to the agreement. In the 28 page draft, the private sector is mentioned 11 times, mostly as it relates to access to capital. And while carbon pricing is mentioned a few times, along with euphemisms for international emissions trading, the document is likely to remain silent on the word “market” through its finalization.
  2. Good progress on both national commitments and an international agreement is being made. Although the most zealous climate mitigators continue to call for a 1.5 degree Celsius target (versus the two degree target that COP21 ostensibly called for), this may not be in climate mitigators best interest. Those in the know suggest that a “not bad” outcome will be less likely to die upon return to each national government. Thus, ironically, those who want to kill the Paris Agreement may also be want this ambitious outcome, which would no doubt die upon return to Washington, New Delhi and other climate-agreement tenuous capitals.
  3. While the lead up to COP21, and the discussions for the last two weeks, have created the foundation of an agreement with national targets and plans, for business, from 2016 onward, the point will be delivering on the low carbon pathways discussed and committed to here. Corporate innovation, influence, political will and finance will move us forward to a climate-abled future.


This is why, while the world will debate the merit of the diplomatic outcome of COP21, we are positive about Paris’ conclusions.

COP21: A Chance in Paris to Save Lives and Improve Livelihoods through Climate Adaptation

I wouldn’t miss the United Nations conference on climate change that begins Monday in Paris, even though it’s the event’s 21st birthday and there’s little to toast from past events. Why is COP21 a must-attend confab for me? This is the first time that climate adaptation will be on the table for discussion. That’s a big deal. Adapting to climate vagaries – think of ocean ports raising sea barriers and drought-tolerant crops being planted in the world’s expanding arid regions – is more important than ever. Adaptation must rise to the top of the climate agenda, ignited by the 6.5 million people displaced in Syria’s drought-driven civil conflict and the 7,000 who died in the superstorm Typhoon Yolanda that hit the Philippines.

The Grave Omission of COPs

So we’re in solidarity with those who will be in Paris to work to decrease global climate emissions. And we are focusing our resources on preventing the avoidable and preparing for the unpreventable in the face of climate change. What’s been the grave omission in the COPs of the past decade are agreements on adaptation commitments. Meanwhile, insurers such as Swiss Re report how weather-related catastrophes are mounting and every year we don’t adapt, more lives are lost.

I’m also going to Paris to gauge the potency of Pope Francis’ recent strong encyclical outlining the moral dimensions of climate change. I want to find out to what extent the political elite are embracing the Pope’s assertion that climate change is a principal challenge facing humanity.

I want to meet and hear the new voices emerging in the battle against climate change. Not the familiar voices of the big pollution emitters – China, Europe and the U.S. – but those from the small island nations and poorer countries who are raising persistent and impassioned concerns about how their populations are being harmed. Places such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Sudan, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Angola.

I’ve spent half of my career focused on adaptation, beginning in Chicago where I worked for City government on a climate-mitigation strategy at the City that, frankly, hasn’t made much of a dent in curbing energy demand. Why? Because that demand continues to grow along with welcome economic progress. In Paris, I want to see if there’s any city whose economy is prospering that’s experiencing a drop in energy use. And, if one or more exist, I want to know what they’ve done to curb customary energy demand.

A Mother’s Duty

There’s another reason why I’m going. Because I’m a mother. Of an inquisitive grade-schooler fascinated by time machines and is animated by the contrast between my Jurassic-era past and his unexplored future filled with technology and innovation.

He gets somber during our annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Boulder, Colo., when he sees the devastating aftermath of forest fires there and the wreckage from the “once-in-100-years” flood in the canyon near our favorite hikes. He wonders if there’s going to be enough tech in the world to get by.

I want to find out what hope we have for his uncertain future, especially as a major World Bank and International Finance Corporation study recently estimated the economic costs of climate change to our physical environment, health and food security at $70-180 billion annually to 2030 – and rising to $900 billion a year in 2050.

And I go there as a devastating drought bites further across California, causing over $2.2 billion in damage, and as an area equivalent to a quarter of New York State deals with the aftermath of drought-induced fires in the Northwest.

For the sake of people everywhere, Adaptation to save lives and improve livelihoods must be at the forefront of climate action next week and forever.