Man the dikes for climate change

A new report on adaptation should push rich nations to help the most vulnerable nations.

What to do? A glacier that provides water to Peru's capital is melting away fast, perhaps gone in 25 years. Should the people of Lima pay to desalinate seawater, bring in water on ships, or simply move?

Like the Whos of Dr. Seuss's Whoville, many parts of the world are looking for a Horton to help them adjust to global warming, which is forecast to last for decades even if radical steps are taken soon to curb greenhouse gases.

Tomorrow, the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a report with its best estimates on which parts of the planet lie in harm's way of the new weather patterns. Its suggestions will serve as a global guide to adapting to hotter weather, rising seas, more severe droughts, or increased floods.

Rich countries in northern climes will be less affected, be better able to cope, and may even see benefits in farming. But because their decades of greenhouse-gas emissions helped make them rich, they have the most obligation to assist poorer, warmer countries that pollute less and yet are most vulnerable to climate change.

In some industrialized nations, adaptation is well under way. Australia's drought-hit Perth has a desalinization plant powered by wind farms. Holland, already well-diked against tides, is raising its flood defenses, as are London and Manhattan. More farmers are turning to drought-resistant grain seeds. In the American West, rights to scarce water are being readjusted.

Africa, which emits only 3 percent of greenhouse gases but has more than 800 million people, is most vulnerable to an increase in droughts. It's also the largest recipient of special international funds aimed at climate-change adaptation.

In Kenya, for instance, new irrigation schemes to alleviate drought are being installed by the World Bank's Global Environment Facility, which plans to spend about $50 million on projects.

Meanwhile, an Adaptation Fund set up under the Kyoto Protocol is supposed to mobilize a mere $20 million by 2012, but it is mired in controversy between rich and poor nations. Some private aid groups as well as a few rich nations are turning development money to adaptation.

Investments in resilience against global warming are well spent. In a report last October, former World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern estimated that climate change will cost up to 20 percent of global GDP if nothing is done to curb heat-trapping gases. That potential damage needs to be stemmed.

Much more money will be needed for both adaptation and curbing carbon emissions. An incentive system could be devised to reward those poor nations that reduce carbon gases with more money for adapting to the effects of warming.

As many countries have shown, the consequences of weather disasters can be contained with proper safeguards, such as good forecasting.

A new type of mental and physical resilience to global warming needs to be built up around the world, especially in the most vulnerable areas. Hard choices will need to be made – such as in Lima – especially for water-stressed areas. And industrialized nations, which pledged in 1992 to help poor nations adapt when they signed onto the Framework Convention on Climate Change, need to act more swiftly and generously.

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