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Helping Vulnerable Countries Adapt to Global Warming

The United States Has a Responsibility to Provide Assistance

As the world’s largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases—and with one of the highest levels of per capita emissions—the United States has a responsibility to help the least developed countries face the threats brought on by global warming. And providing financial assistance for these countries to use in adapting to global warming’s effects would be a responsible and sensible course of action that would also promote stability and prosperity abroad.

In the rapidly unfolding debate of international climate policy, “adaptation” refers to the ability of communities to prepare for and respond to the consequences of climate change. Adaptation is one of the four priorities of international climate negotiations, in addition to mitigation (reducing global warming pollution), clean technology transfer, and finance.

However, not all parts of the world will need to address adaptation as soon as others. Despite having contributed very little to global warming, the least developed countries are the most likely to suffer from its effects. And this outcome will be amplified by poorer countries’ inability to adapt to a range of environmental, social, and economic risks such as extreme drought, sea level rise, and mass migrations of vulnerable populations—in addition to conflict and instability rooted in water and resource scarcity.

For example, research released this month by Oxfam America indicated that by 2015 an average of 375 million people will be touched by humanitarian disasters whose severity is fueled by climate change. This represents a 50-percent increase over the amount of people affected in years past, and as Oxfam’s David Waskow notes, the scale suggested by this new data is “threatening to overwhelm emergency response and humanitarian aid systems.”

The United States should commit to providing financial assistance to these vulnerable countries. Accepting this responsibility will require modernizing our existing overseas development aid in order to improve global resilience to climate impacts. But committing to international adaptation will prove to be a sensible and prudent long-term investment.

This strategy becomes especially practical when one considers that a hidden cost of global warming is that it will diminish the effectiveness of current global development assistance. The World Bank estimates that an extra $10 billion to $40 billion is needed to make existing development aid “climate resilient,” or capable of withstanding climate change impacts. By not considering such consequences, we risk significantly weakening the effect of the money we spend on assistance, thus driving up the overall cost of each project. For example, to ensure that progress on infrastructure is lasting and years of work do not wash away in a storm or flood, additional funds are now necessary to decrease the likelihood of incurring replacement costs in the future.

However, the World Bank’s estimate is to “climate proof” aid and does not take into account more widely recognized adaptation measures. These may include improved water management and introduction of desalination technologies, risk-assessment tools, investments in drought-resistant crops, health facilities better prepared to handle a surge in water-borne illnesses, and relocation of communities away from flood plains and low-lying regions.

Considering these needs and building on the World Bank’s estimate, the United Nations Development Program projects that adaptation will actually call for an annual investment of $86 billion by 2015. There is an international consensus that this adaptation aid should be new and additional revenue streams—funds that supplement existing assistance to developing countries.

This may sound expensive, but when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas pollution, there is every indication that it is far less expensive to act now than to delay action and adopt more aggressive, urgent, and expensive policies in the future. Similarly, the costs of not addressing adaptation outweigh the costs of taking preventive measures now and preparing communities for anticipated disasters. Yet even as this cost equation has become more evident over the past decade, our policies on global warming and adaptation have been largely dormant.

But while U.S. policy has remained stagnant, several funds and adaptation initiatives have been created. For decades, countries have contributed to the Global Environment Facility, or GEF Trust Fund. Recently, $50 million from this fund was allocated toward a Strategic Priority on Adaptation pilot project. The GEF is also now responsible for administering a handful of funds created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, including a Least Developed Countries Fund for adaptation, a Special Climate Change Fund, and an Adaptation Fund that has not yet resolved questions about its ultimate revenue stream.[1] Lastly, the World Bank launched a Pilot Program for Climate Resilience within one of its Climate Investment Funds.[2] The initiative is new and contributions have only been minimally pledged.

U.S. engagement in these efforts has begun to show promise under a new administration and Congress. Until February of this year, the United States was the only industrialized country not to have funded international adaptation through any means other than the GEF. This finally changed in the Fiscal Year 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act, which designated $10 million to the United Nations’ Least Developed Countries Fund. This is the first financial installment the United States has made to the U.N. climate change negotiations process and is a laudatory first step.

A second praiseworthy initiative is in the American Clean Energy and Security Act recently circulated by Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA). The bill proposes an adaptation-specific program overseen by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. Its objective is to promote climate resilience and community preparedness and help plan, finance, and implement adaptation projects abroad.

An illustration of how this might work is that USAID would identify communities most at risk and least prepared for an adverse impact, such as high levels of salinity in freshwater that affect drinking water supplies, agriculture, and food security (Nature recently reported on a similar situation in Bangladesh caused by rising tides and storm surges). USAID could then take several steps to assist in such a situation—it could fund an initiative for seeds or crops that do better with higher salt levels or facilitate the transfer of technology to desalinate drinking water.

The proposed USAID program is a good start, but we must build on its momentum by providing dedicated financial assistance for climate change adaptation project implementation in our overall development assistance profile.[3]

Besides our responsibility to help vulnerable countries the challenge of climate change adaptation also presents us with a world of opportunity to improve the development trajectory of poor countries. Improving climate resilience and supporting adaptation will encourage capacity building, improve infrastructure, and thus promote economic growth. It will also enhance agricultural development and provide opportunities for clean-energy accessibility and reliability to help alleviate global energy poverty.

Six billion people in the developing world have much more immediately at stake in the resolution of climate change. For everyone’s sake, we cannot miss the chance to make these investments in their future and in ours.


Kari Manlove is a Research Associate for the Energy Opportunity team at American Progress. For more on CAP’s energy policies please see our Energy and Enviornment page.


[1] Unlike other funds created by the UNFCCC, the Adaptation Fund’s financial base will come as a by-product of the Clean Development Mechanism project transactions. Two percent of the cost of each project is put into the Adaptation Fund. Both the Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund have received some but not all contributions pledged by countries.

[2] It is worth noting that there is considerable disagreement as to whether the World Bank is the appropriate administer of adaptation funds in comparison to the Global Environment Facility.

[3] The legislative track record on international adaptation funding has not been as robust as the UNDP cost estimate suggests is required. Past proposals, such as the Climate Security Act of 2008 and the Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act, or iCAP, dedicated a percentage of a cap and trade program’s revenue toward international adaptation. Neither of these proposals passed, and cap-and-trade revenue is looking less likely to be a means of financing international adaptation.