How to help the countries most vulnerable to climate change

Money is critical, but embracing change is key.

Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index
The ND-GAIN Country Index, a project of the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index, summarizes a country's vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience.

How will poor countries, in many cases the most vulnerable to climate change, respond and adapt to a changing world?

That's one of the biggest questions lingering after the Paris climate agreement succeeded in mobilizing 195 nations around reducing their emissions to prevent a warmer world.

According to a global index managed by the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the five countries most vulnerable and least prepared to deal with climate change are Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Using 25 years of data, Notre Dame’s global adaptation index ranks 192 countries annually on their preparedness for risks exacerbated by climate change, such as overcrowding, food insecurity, inadequate infrastructure, and civil conflicts.

Ideally, the least vulnerable countries – including New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany – will help their neighbors financially.

One of the big accomplishments at December's Conference of Parties climate talks in Paris was getting wealthy nations to agree to provide $100 billion through 2020 to help the least developed countries, as defined by the United Nations, adapt to a changing climate. The money will flow through a Green Climate Fund, which is a combination of grants from wealthy countries, such as the United States (ranked #11), and investments from private companies.

“We will not leave the most vulnerable nations among us to weather the storms alone,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told a packed news conference in Paris, after announcing that the US plans to double the $430 million in grants it gave out in 2014 over the next four years, to help vulnerable countries adapt to the risks of a changing climate, reported the Financial Times.

Logistical stumbling blocks must still be worked out, such as ensuring that countries contribute the money they promised and that receiving countries spend the money wisely.

But the people behind the index say one of the keys for adapting to a new world for vulnerable countries is not about money at all; it’s about acknowledging that a different climate will change things.

“Many countries are grappling with a hierarchy of needs that puts climate risk close to the bottom,” says Joyce Coffee, managing director of the index, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. The biggest needs in the least developed countries revolve around managing widespread poverty and its effects on things like health and corruption, she says.

“While I believe very strongly that solutions to climate come from within a country,” she says, “they won’t come until leaders embrace the changes that are coming.”

One example of where embracing change makes a difference, said Ms. Coffee, is in the west African country of Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). Cocoa, its major export, is at great risk from climate change, since the plant is sensitive to temperature changes and takes years to grow.

“If the federal government isn’t helping farmers see changes and anticipate and prepare for them,” she says, “they’re making it hard for those who have emerged from poverty to get a leg up in a climate change world.”

Over the last five years, Cote d’Ivoire has made enormous headway in building a strong foundation to help the country deal with climate-related risks, according to the index. The country has climbed nearly 20 points higher in the vulnerability and preparedness rankings to #131 out of 192 countries.

Other countries that have improved in the rankings are Laos, Georgia, The Philippines, Russia, Poland, Rwanda, Mongolia, Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Researchers say they have each improved their economies and other basics necessary to deal with new challenges from a changing climate, which include increasing sanitation, agricultural capacity, and access to drinking water, while decreasing slum populations and child malnutrition.

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