Discuss a global adaptation goal now, not later

A goal for adaptation must be included in any legal climate instrument at Paris 2015. The reasons for it are simple, logical, and obvious, and developed countries, particularly US and the EU, need to accept them now, for everyone’s sake later.

At the recent climate talks in Bonn, developing country negotiators clashed with the EU and US over the inclusion of a “global adaptation goal” in the final deal. Developing countries wanted a viable, legally significant target for financing adaptation. It’s not hard to see why – climate change is having its impact now. From floods in Chad and Nigeria, unpredictable weather in Ghana or Malawi, and intense cyclones in Bangladesh, the longer it takes for adaptation programs to get going, the more obstacles lie in store for poverty reduction and national development. Financing for these programs remains mostly in the pockets of developed countries.No serious commitments to capitalise adaptation funding bodies like the Green Climate Fund have been made, and the role of the private sector in adaptation finance remains vague and undefined.

Perhaps predictably, developed countries were reluctant to engage. The goal, they said, would be difficult to operationalise, causing political and practical problems in predicting and allocating costs. The US shared similar concerns, arguing that on aggregate, mitigation efforts benefit everyone, while aggregate adaptation does not.

The problem of costs raised by the US and EU is an evasion tactic. Significant work has gone into estimating the costs of adaptation, including reports from the World Bank and the UN. Not only that, but planning processes for medium and long term adaptation goals in individual countries are already underway, as countries develop their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). It’s natural that any country strategising its response to climate change is going to consider the costs of adaptation. Amalgamating the costs of country NAP’s can serve as a first step to setting a financial goal and allocating costs across different countries. It’s entirely possible to estimate and allocate costs, although it’s clear that the adaptation goal will also need a mechanism to make the goal iterative and responsive to new research on predicted climatic change.

The US argument that adaptation is a national problem, not a global one, is undermined by considering the consequences of failing to adapt. It’s well documented that unabated climate change can have significant implications for global security. Unproductive land, drying up of water resources, or savage natural disasters lead to either sudden or gradual migrations of what were once highly localised religious, ethnic or tribal groups. The strain on already struggling economies can be too much. Migration on the scale that climate change threatens to cause greatly widens the road to civil tension and conflict. In the case of Darfur, water scarcity was a factor in incentivising the nomadic Janjaweed to continue their genocidal campaign against settled, pastoral Darfuris, living on relatively more water secure land. Indeed, the conflict in Darfur has been called “the first climate war“. Having seen the escalation of the Arab Spring into full blown civil wars and conflict, there is no doubt that localised civil tensions can grow into regional crises in relatively short spaces of time, making them a significant global concern.

US negotiators should look to their own Department of Defence for guidance. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, which outlines US military doctrine, states that “climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large”, and that climate change is a “threat multiplier”, aggravating the existing violent tensions caused by poverty, political instability, and leading to “resource competition” and “terrorist activity”. This threat multiplication effect is already happening, which implies that adaptation is needed now, not later. If the Pentagon thinks this to be the case, then so should their negotiators in the climate department.

Negotiators will meet again in June to continue progress towards a “big deal” in Paris 2015. In these preliminary talks, developed countries should accept the necessities of not just global justice, but global insecurity as well. By accepting the principle of a global adaptation goal now, they can give the idea time to germinate for a fair and equitable deal later. Doing so is necessary for the future security needs of both developing and developed countries.