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Adaptation is far more complex

At COP26 in November, an agreement text referred to doubling the amount of “climate finance” that goes to adaptation. Country representatives also agreed to establish a “dialogue” on a loss and damage facility, which may eventually enable fund transfers from the global north to the global south. These weak achievements were actually impressive considering the lack of action on both adaptation and loss and damage over the years. However in Bonn, the dialogue on loss and damage remains outside of the formal negotiating agenda.

Examples are piling up that countries already most susceptible to climate change are contending with a whole new form of economic disadvantage.

This disadvantage will only be amplified by credit ratings agencies turning a closer eye to climate impact risks. Moody’s said last month that India’s sovereign credit rating might be affected by its extreme heat waves. Standard & Poor’s recently published a note warning that low and middle income countries were exposed to more than three times as much GDP damage from climate change as high income countries. These economic losses “are likely to be higher and more persistent” given that these countries have weaker institutions and less financial capacity to adapt, the report said.

The effects of climate change are especially dire for the most vulnerable — even more so coming on top of a war that has throttled supply of some soft commodities. The World Food Programme’s latest Hunger Hotspot report this week warns that conflict and climate shocks will drive acute hunger through September, adding “we have entered a ‘new normal’ where frequent and recurring droughts, flooding, hurricanes and cyclones decimate farming, drive displacement and push millions to the brink in countries across the world.”

Vulnerable countries themselves are not simply waiting for handouts; many governments are doing the difficult work of figuring out how they might adapt. Adaptation is far more complex than plonking down a few isolated bits of infrastructure; it requires addressing a whole range of interconnected hazards, vulnerabilities and exposures that can arise as the climate changes. Dominica is incorporating resilience criteria across its entire budget process; Bangladesh has been doing similar work for several years. However even that work has a cost. The Green Climate Fund, a multilateral organization, is distributing $162 million to 69 countries just for this purpose, but overall no one is providing near enough funds to actually enact the plans.

The war and worsening climate impacts have compounded the effects of the pandemic. The World Bank warned this week that real income per capita in 2023 will remain below pre-Covid-19 levels in about 40 percent of developing economies, and for “many countries, recession will be hard to avoid.”

There can and will be adaptation. As things currently look, however, it will be mostly the world’s more privileged people who benefit from it. The bland assurance that “we can adapt” or “we will adapt” should be retired. Instead it should be replaced by: Who will have to adapt, and who will be able to?

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