Is 2021 the year for climate adaptation?

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Global responses to climate change largely focus on how to prevent or minimise its effects, a strategy known as climate change mitigation. Much less attention is given to climate change adaptation—the adjustments that (especially in vulnerable areas) we already need to make to cope in a warming world.

As richer nations recognise more and more that climate change is happening now, and not at some point in the future, discussion of what is needed to promote adaptation is gaining ground. At the international level, these discussions often centre around climate adaptation finance; in the Paris Agreement of 2015, rich nations committed to providing poorer nations with $100 billion of climate finance every year by 2020.

A key focus of adaptation finance must be to support vulnerable communities to remain in situ where desired. This is particularly true for rural communities whose livelihood success is heavily dependent on changing weather patterns. Adaptation can be supported through: increasing disaster resilience and response measures including early warning systems; developing and sharing climate-adaptive agricultural practices; increasing the availability of capital to transform production techniques; and implementing policies that facilitate access to markets which support climate-adaptive livelihoods.

The common perception that communities in the Global South will flee environmental disasters for the safety of the Global North plays into stories of victims and/or security threats. In-situ adaptation, if undertaken considerately and collaboratively, can support the autonomy of its target populations and tells different stories. They are stories of active agents of change, rather than victims. They are stories of communities who chose to remain in their ancestral homes, where connections to the land define shared identity.

In situ adaptation will not always be possible or desirable though; I have previously noted how migration can be considered an adaptive strategy. Where migration proves to be the optimum response, the majority of movements will take place domestically, from rural to urban centres. Better infrastructure and greater access to housing, jobs, public health and education will provide resilience against increased population pressures and demands on resources. It is in these areas that finance, supporting carefully thought-out policy, can have the greatest impact. Where the decision to migrate is supported as an adaptive response, rather than seen as a failure to adapt, it can offer triple-win benefits to origin and destination communities, and individuals who move.

By some estimates, current adaptation costs in developing countries are approximately US$70 billion each year. But by 2050, that figure could reach US$280–500 billion. On the other hand, the OECD calculated that climate finance directed towards adaptation was only around US$15 billion in 2017–2018. The rich nations of the world are failing to live up to the commitments made in the Paris Agreement. In 2021, world leaders are meeting at the G7 in June and COP26 in November, two of the biggest multilateral conferences that will address climate change. Will this year prove to be a turning point?

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Flags of the G7 Summit. This year’s G7 summit will take place 11-13 June.

The UK government holds the presidency of both the G7 and COP26. It has a unique opportunity to show strong leadership, and to push for commitment to support those already at risk. There have already been positive developments; the Climate and Development Ministerial, held in March 2021, placed access to climate finance at the top of the agenda, and established a Taskforce on Access to Climate Finance in partnership with Fiji.

However, the Taskforce has been criticised for not being ambitious enough. What’s more, despite a rhetorical commitment to providing finance for those in need, the UK government plans to cut its aid budget. Such cuts will affect, among others, key programmes targeting disaster resilience, as well as health and education programmes. It is a move which will leave already vulnerable communities further exposed. This is a strange turn for a government whose ministers state that “the mobilisation of finance is essential for implementation of the Paris agreement”, especially when other nations such as the US are pledging to double their own contributions in the coming years (though those pledges have been criticised themselves for not going far enough).

The position taken by the UK is not a surprise, unfortunately. We can see similar attitudes reflected in the other great challenge of the moment—the COVID-19 pandemic. Although much has been made of the watershed that the pandemic has created, the slow rollout of the COVAX programme has shown that states can all too easily revert to protectionism, overlooking the needs of the most vulnerable. This has occurred despite research identifying the economic benefits to richer countries of supporting large-scale vaccine programmes.

These are lessons that could equally be applied to climate change and adaptation. Although it has been pushed down the agenda, the effects of climate change have not slowed. As states embark on programmes to ‘build back better’, binding commitments must be made to place climate change adaptation and adaptation finance at the centre of these programmes. The outcome will benefit us all.

Simon Loveday is a student on the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development programme at SOAS. He is currently researching migration in the context of climate change, focusing on how the narratives surrounding the phenomenon impact on our ability to advocate for climate justice. Simon is a passionate climate activist, and a BSAC scuba dive instructor in his spare time at SOAS

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