The “code red” summer of 2021 is nearly behind us now – this season of floods in Germany and China, fires in Turkey, Greece, Siberia, Canada and California, and heat domes in places that had never previously heard of such a thing. July was the hottest month on earth. Last month’s sober message from the Sixth Assessment Report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change merely added an exclamation point.
In the northern hemisphere, autumn is on the horizon and now what? The science makes clear that mitigation of climate change must occur at record pace and with record ambition across the globe – and the same is true for adaptation to the unavoidable and increasing impacts of climate change.
Adaptation is a global challenge
Adaptation to climate change, so often treated as a local matter, is a global concern. In a deadly fashion, the summer of 2021 underlines that the climate crisis is not confined to one region – or to countries beneath certain comfortable income levels. Scientists predict that even more extreme record-shattering events lie ahead.
The pandemic has shown us how interconnected people around the globe are. Climate risk, just like a virus, easily crosses borders. It travels along diverse pathways: international trade and supply chains, capital flows, human mobility and natural resources shared between countries, both regionally and globally.
Likewise, actions to adapt to climate change can have effects far beyond the jurisdiction of the country implementing them. One country’s adaptation efforts can all too easily redistribute climate risk to another country rather than reducing the risk outright.
For example, the price of rice tripled in Senegal in 2008 following a chain reaction that began when India halted its exports of rice in response to poor harvest forecasts during a drought. It led to political instability and rioting on the streets of Dakar.
A recent study led by INFRAS, a Swiss consultancy firm, for the German Environment Agency valued the economic risk of climate-induced disruptions in German trade alone as greater than the combined economic risk of all direct climate change impacts within Germany’s national borders.
“Adaptation to climate change cannot be an afterthought. Neither can it be a standalone pursuit.”
As the summer of 2021 tragically reveals, current adaptation efforts fall short. Moreover, additional cross-border climate risks continue to be overlooked.
Governments and companies should adopt a transboundary rather than a domestic perspective on climate risk. This involves, among other things, identifying and analysing all pathways along which climate risk propagates, including those that originate many thousands of kilometres away. A transboundary perspective is vital to address the full scope and nature of adaptation to create opportunities that can strengthen international cooperation, and to pave the way towards lasting global resilience.
Correcting a flawed financial calculus
Those with hands on the levers of power still insist that the costs of climate change mitigation are unjustifiably high and suggest that adapting to the impacts are a better use of money. Such a view of is deeply flawed. To watch this summer’s tragedies unfold is to see the folly of this calculus.
In place after place and countries of all income levels, the cost of inaction accrues. If we continue on this high-emission path, adaptation will become ever more difficult, if not impossible. We will have to spend billions – dollars, euros, yuan – to repair or compensate for damages that we chose not to prevent because of the perceived costs. Doing too little too late is not a viable plan. We will pay with our lives.
Money is not the sole limitation
Successful adaptation requires more than finance. It requires ambition, and a way to make things happen. Mitigation goals are clear: we must reduce emissions, and fast, to hold global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. However, adaptation goals are fuzzy.
Article 7 of the Paris Agreement established the global goal of “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change”. There is no mechanism to make this goal operational, unify varying visions or put on the speed needed to protect societies. The prospect of creating clarity on this issue at the UN climate negotiations in Glasgow later this year is slim.
If all the cash needed to make the world resilient to climate change were suddenly to materialize, what would we do with it? We lack funds to be sure, as well as a clear vision of what global adaptation ambition looks like and how it should be pursued.
Adaptation cannot be an excuse to overlook mitigation
The more we contain climate change, the greater the likelihood that adaptation will be effective. Under current policies, models suggest that global temperatures may rise 2.7° to 3.1°C above pre-industrial levels. It is dangerous to think that we might contain global warming by thinking that we can subtract “1° of adaptation” from “3° of warming”. We can’t simply adapt our way out of the climate crisis – and certainly not by the simple maths of 3−1=2.
Adaptation to climate change cannot be an afterthought, but neither can it be a stand-alone pursuit. At this point, every single ton of carbon emitted matters – not least because adaptation faces limits. When we reach them, then what?