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Climate Adaptation: A Tale of Two Cities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adanna C. Kalejaye
October 30, 2023

Years of discountenancing scientific prediction and delay in taking climate action are coming to haunt humanity! The IPCC recent 2023 synthesis report; the sixth assessment report (AR6) notes how the impact of climate change has led to adverse impacts to built, natural and human systems, affecting weather conditions and causing extreme climatic events globally. Although the losses and damages from climate change has been widespread, the assessment report reveals that communities who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are disproportionately affected by the impact. The vulnerability of these communities is heightened by not just their exposure and sensitivity to the extreme climatic conditions but especially their frail adaptive capacity.

In navigating through the crisis brought on by climate change, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere and avoidance of GHG emission is a sine qua non. Unfortunately, with irreversible damage already occurring in some communities and ecosystems such as loss of local species driven by increase in the extremity of heat, mass mortality of some land and ocean species and mortality and morbidity of urban residents, it has become exigent to prepare our systems to adjust to the present and projected onslaught to minimize the loss and damage. In essence, regardless of the mitigation goals to decrease the global average temperature by cutting back on our emissions, the likelihood that global warming is bound to exceed the 1.5°C pre-industrial levels threshold before the end of the decade has been established. The urgency and the magnitude of climate disaster makes it expedient to deploy measures to shore up our defenses, thus the need to adapt. Adaptation by altering our behavior, our systems and our ways of life to address the risks of living in a hotter planet, will make our infrastructure more resilient, help in managing the impact of rising sea levels, protecting our agriculture and essentially preserving our food supply. It may seem gratuitous to continue to cut back on our emissions since, like Samson, the crisis is already upon us, and will continue to impinge on us, but nonetheless, the projections are dire! However, a sustained decrease in emissions will make adaptation to the adverse changes easier and, as depicted in scientific models, perhaps force a decline in global temperature back to below pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

Adaptation to climate change or its crisis is however not homogeneous but dependent on the peculiarity of the region. That is, the geography and ecosystem of the region, the climatic conditions, the institutional and administrative infrastructure in place and the socio-economic status of the region have a defining role in determining how vulnerable the region is to the climate crisis and what kind of response is required to adjust adequately. Alas, as stated earlier, countries that have contributed the least to the climate crisis need to adapt the most and often come up short because the financial and institutional wherewithal is sorely lacking. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) with a population of approximately 1.1 billion people have contributed less than 4 percent of the global GHG emissions. Additionally, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) with a population of 65 million have contributed less than 1 percent of the global GHG emissions but their geographical configuration makes them extremely vulnerable to the impact of climate change. UNDP reports that due to water related hazards and climatic events SIDS have suffered losses worth $153 billion from 1970 to 2020.

Sitting on the other side of the divide are the major emitters that have contributed immensely and still continue to contribute to the climate crisis by the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they spew out. Topping the chart for highest cumulative and per capita emissions are the United States, China and the countries in Europe. Nonetheless, all countries must adapt to climate change regardless of their socio-economic status or their level of technological advancement and herein lies the impasse. Climate adaptation does not come cheap! The UN Environment Program puts the estimated annual cost of adaptation as between $160-340 billion by 2030 and $315-565 billion by 2050. This means that regardless of the adaptation strategies, plans, policies in place, without the financial power to execute them, they become an environmental hogwash. So, what we see is a scenario where those who have contributed the most to the crisis; the wealthier nations are able to pay to escape for the most part the repercussions of their actions leaving the rest of the world, the less wealthy and poor to suffer the full extent of the crisis. UN Special Report on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston describes this as “climate apartheid”. The sentiments shared by developing and least developed countries and put in words succinctly by the president of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), Manish Bapna, is that they can’t be expected to “pay a price they can’t afford for a climate crisis they did not cause”. The clamor for climate justice made headway at COP27 where an agreement to establish a loss and damage fund to help vulnerable countries pay for climate damage was made. Its implementation and success remain to be seen.

Author: Adanna Kalejaye is an internationally specialized lawyer in the fields of commercial law, environmental law, energy law and maritime law. She holds an LL.M (Master of Law) from Swansea University, Wales, UK. She is currently a doctoral student and research assistant in Public Policy at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston. She teaches courses on sustainable development and zero wasteat the Osher Life-Long Learning Institute (OLLI) in UMass Boston. Her research interests are in environmental law and policies, climate change, sustainable development, renewable energy, waste management, policy building and analysis at both national and international level. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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