High in the Himalayas, Bhutan is scrambling to fend off the onrushing effects of climate change. Two dozen lakes swollen by glacial melting are in danger of bursting their earthen dams and sweeping through the mountain kingdom like an inland tsunami.
"This is a big problem for Bhutan" as it tries to adapt to climate change, says Thinley Namgyel, with the country's National Environment Commission.
To reduce the risk, the government has set up a flood-adaptation project, splitting the $6.9 million cost with the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which oversees two funds to help developing countries cope with global warming.
The country's vulnerability – and the effort it's making to reduce it – highlights one of the hot-button issues at UN-sponsored climate talks here in Bali: The burgeoning need to help developing countries adapt to global warming. Despite mechanisms such as the GEF, demand for adaptation assistance far outstrips the cash on hand to supply it.
Boosting the amount of money and determining who will control the agency that doles it out are critical items on the developing-country agenda here, says Kate Raworth, senior researcher with the international development organization Oxfam.
Currently, adaptation money comes from two global funds that rely on voluntary donations from wealthy nations, but falls far short of what is needed. Rich nations have pledged a combined $220.4 million, but as of September had delivered only $116.6 million – a "pathetic" amount, says Ms. Raworth, who puts the immediate needs among the poorest nations at $1 billion to $2 billion a year.
Overall, estimated adaptation costs in developing countries range from $30 billion to $70 billion a year if countries fail to stabilize global emissions at levels that hold Earth's thermostat below the "dangerous climate change" threshold – which many peg at roughly 2.2 degrees F. of current temperatures.
Two reports published this week highlighted challenges likely to be brought on by climate change. The National Academy of Sciences journal Proceedings focused on the negative impact on global food supplies, while the Pew Center for Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va., warned of low-oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay, heat waves in the urban Midwest, threats to wetlands that protect the Gulf Coast, and increased wildfire risks in the western US.
"It is clear that we are already seeing changing conditions, and there is a real urgency for strong national and international policy action," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center.
The US Senate took a step in that direction Wednesday, when the Environment and Public Works Committee finished its work on the Lieberman-Warner Act. In addition to setting up CO2 emissions targets and a carbon-trading system to help meet them, the bill would earmark $1 billion a year to help poor countries adapt to global warming. The money would come from government auctions of greenhouse-gas emission permits.
At the 11-day conference here in Bali, meanwhile, developing countries have been working to put more financial muscle behind adaptation assistance. As an alternative to voluntary funds, which are falling far short of the need, they're pushing for increased adaptation funding under the Kyoto Protocol.
Under the protocol, a company can earn emission credits by building emissions-cutting projects in developing countries – dubbed a clean-development mechanism (CDM). CDM credits can be traded on the international carbon market, with 2 percent of the value set aside in an adaptation fund. But by some pessimistic estimates, that levy is only likely to generate several hundred million dollars a year. So developing countries want to expand the levy to cover all carbon credits issued under the protocol – not just those issued via the clean-development mechanism. Their goal here is to put the protocol's adaptation fund squarely on the agenda for the protocol's first operational review, slated for next year. The protocol's first commitment period takes effect Jan. 1. In addition, developing countries are pushing to streamline and cut the high cost of applying for adaptation money.
While Bhutan forges ahead with its GEF-funded project to reduce flood risk, experts in other countries are rediscovering local traditional knowledge and social institutions long since sidelined as archaic. Some of these approaches may be more nimble in responding to changes in local environmental conditions that a strictly top-down approach, according to Neil Leary, science director for a UN-sponsored study released this week on developing-country adaptation efforts.
Yet adaptation must go hand-in-hand with development, specialists say. Oxfam's Raworth argues that in any post-2012 climate agreement, the press for adequate funding for adaptation should stand on a equal footing with efforts to set new, more-stringent emissions-reduction targets. Without that, she says, negotiators are likely to set up an adaptation financing system "that is perfect in structure but puny in size."