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Adaptation to Climate Change and the Future of the IPCC
Balaton Group, 30 Nov 07
Article Photo

By David Satterthwaite

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has succeeded in getting most governments to recognize the very serious problems that human-induced climate change will bring, without dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within the wealthiest nations and less carbon-intensive development within other nations. Although its initial focus was on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), the IPCC also recognized the importance of adaptation to limit the impacts of potentially dangerous aspects of climate change. This can be seen in the report of its Working Group II within the Third Assessment (published in 2001) and the Fourth Assessment (2007). But it does not recognize fully the political and institutional constraints on local and national adaptation in low- and middle-income nations and this is an issue that needs serious attention, as consideration is given to the IPCC's future. It also does not appreciate fully the very poor record of most international aid agencies and development banks in supporting the kinds of local development and institutional competence that are the foundations for adaptation.

To date, the IPCC Working Group II (on adaptation) has drawn more heavily on scientists knowledgeable about climate-related risks than on development specialists knowledgeable about who in any locality is most at risk and why. This is not to detract in any way from the quality or commitment of those who contributed to it. But this means that too little attention is paid to the weaknesses and inadequacies of local governments in low- and middle-income nations and to the social and political underpinnings of risk and vulnerability, especially for those with low-incomes and limited asset-bases. It also means too many generalizations about 'developing countries' when there are such large differences in adaptive capacity between nations - for instance as if adaptive capacity in Brazil, South Africa or China can be discussed as comparable to that in Somalia or DR Congo. There also seems to be an assumption that increased international funding for adaptation will allow needed measures to be taken.

Working Group II also drew little on the 'disaster-preparedness' community of scholars and activists who have transformed our understanding of what causes disasters and the extent to which 'natural' disasters are preventable (because the actual disaster is so much to do with inadequate planning and infrastructure and lower-income groups having no alternative but to live in high risk areas). This was surprising, given how much they can contribute to understanding the possibilities and constraints on adaptation that reduces risks from, for instance, storms and floods.

The IPCC was also inherently conservative (with a small c) for a number of reasons. One is that its defence against certain very aggressive governments and vested interests that sought to discredit it is that it drew from research published in peer-reviewed journals. A large part of the hidden work of the IPCC is careful responses to numerous objections by governments to its draft texts and the process of achieving a final document that no government can refuse to endorse. But this meant that it could not draw on widely known and shared professional knowledge - for instance on the high vulnerability of large numbers of rural and urban dwellers in many nations in Asia and Africa to extreme weather events and changes in fresh water availability that is very inadequately covered in peer-reviewed journals. Also, the IPCC has always worked almost entirely in English, perhaps because of the huge cost in having simultaneous translation in all its meetings and translating the numerous drafts. This would also have slowed down its deliberations. But this has limited the participation of specialists from other nations - for instance not drawing on the rich literature in Latin America published only in Spanish or Portuguese on vulnerability and on local government innovation and reform (that is a critical part of building adaptive capacity). By drawing heavily on climate science specialists, this also meant a high concentration of specialists from high-income nations (many low-income nations have very limited or no research programmes on climate change). The IPCC clearly tried hard to ensure greater participation from specialists from low- and middle-income nations. But this would have been easier if it had been able to draw on specialists who did not speak or publish in English and on more development specialists.

So what might the above imply for future IPCC work? On adaptation, certainly a recognition of how much local contexts affect adaptive capacity and a need to draw in far more knowledge on the possibilities and constraints on locally-driven, pro-poor development. For instance, for cities, it is not possible to adapt to more intense storms and floods if much of the population live in informal settlements lacking drains (and piped water supplies, sanitation, all-weather roads and health care) and with local governments that ignore them or seek to bulldoze them. In addition to this, there is a need to draw on the knowledge accumulated over the last 20 years on the investments and other measures that stop floods or storms becoming disasters. Also an avoidance of the assumption that there are necessarily strong complementarities between mitigation and adaptation; a very large part of the population most at risk from climate change contribute hardly at all to greenhouse gas emissions and much of what would reduce these risks has little implication for increased emissions. Some key background documentation and discussion could be commissioned in other languages, without increasing costs and slowing deliberations too much. Implementing these changes will be a very large challenge for the IPCC as those who have had leading roles in its work and achievements to date need to draw on other disciplines and networks for its future effectiveness.


David Satterthwaite works at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He was one of the lead authors in the chapter on Human Settlements, Energy and Industry in the Third Assessment (McCarthy, James J. Osvaldo F. Canziani, Niel A. Leary, David J. Dokken and Kaskey S. White, Eds., Climate Change 2001; Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001) and a review editor for the chapter on Industry, Settlement and Society in the Fourth Assessment (Parry, M.L., O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007).

Image: Polar Mesospheric Clouds. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

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Posted by: Tjahjokartiko Gondokusumo on 1 Dec 07

Great article. Although concensus takes time, I think the IPCC is a key component to deterring nations (like my home Canada) from trying to free-ride.

But more important is the opportunity in creating the new paradigm. Industrialized countries are creating this problem but they also have the resources to change. That's not the case for most. In terms of energy, more than 30 countries in the world spend more on energy imports than they make on exports.

Industrialized countries need to fix up their act (which is doable and good for most businesses). But there also needs to be resources dedicated to helping rural areas and non-industrialized nations by-pass a GHG intensive energy system.

That's why organizations like iCAST, which help develop locally owned renewable energy systems and build local capacity, are a key piece in taking the IPCC recomendations and creating a new paradigm.


Posted by: raph on 3 Dec 07

Great article. Although concensus takes time, I think the IPCC is a key component to deterring nations (like my home Canada) from trying to free-ride.

But more important is the opportunity in creating the new paradigm. Industrialized countries are creating this problem but they also have the resources to change. That's not the case for most. In terms of energy, more than 30 countries in the world spend more on energy imports than they make on exports.

Industrialized countries need to fix up their act (which is doable and good for most businesses). But there also needs to be resources dedicated to helping rural areas and non-industrialized nations by-pass a GHG intensive energy system.

That's why organizations like iCAST, which help develop locally owned renewable energy systems and build local capacity, are a key piece in taking the IPCC recomendations and creating a new paradigm.


Posted by: raph on 3 Dec 07

Great article. Although concensus takes time, I think the IPCC is a key component to deterring nations (like my home Canada) from trying to free-ride.

But more important is the opportunity in creating the new paradigm. Industrialized countries are creating this problem but they also have the resources to change. That's not the case for most. In terms of energy, more than 30 countries in the world spend more on energy imports than they make on exports.

Industrialized countries need to fix up their act (which is doable and good for most businesses). But there also needs to be resources dedicated to helping rural areas and non-industrialized nations by-pass a GHG intensive energy system.

That's why organizations like iCAST, which help develop locally owned renewable energy systems and build local capacity, are a key piece in taking the IPCC recomendations and creating a new paradigm.


Posted by: raph on 3 Dec 07

Three humble proposals……………………

Hello to All,

Thanks for your contributions to these discussions and for the uncommonly constructive way in which you participate. Perhaps you will be so kind and consider three following proposals.

The first proposal is an idea that has been deeply developed by Dr. Jack Alpert of the Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory (SKIL). According to his calculations, if we agreed, as one family of humanity, to begin now to implement VOLUNTARILY a “One Child Per Family” policy, it would be possible in the coming 50 years to rapidly decrease absolute global human population numbers to 1.5 billion rather than have human numbers worldwide grow to a fully anticipated 9.2 billion people by 2050 (UN Population Division projections). Although there is much more to say about this proposal, I am going to immediately pass on to the matter of modifying the global economy: the second proposal.

There are remarkably well-developed ideas by Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute in England regarding a plan for the “contraction and convergence” of the global economy, as a way of protecting the Earth from the reckless and relentless expansion of economic globalization that could soon become patently unsustainable on a relatively small planet with Earth’s limited resources. It goes without saying that the Earth does not possess enough resources to sustain the human species, if every human being on the planet consumes resources as voraciously as people in the ‘developed’ world do now.

My third proposal calls for a plan to be formulated that redistributes resources and caps excessive per-capita over-consumption. I suppose what I am trying to point out is this: current per human consumption in the ‘developed’ world, unbridled increase of human industrial/production capabilities in the ‘developing’ world, and skyrocketing human numbers in the ‘undeveloped’ world cannot be sustained much longer by the limited natural resources and frangible ecosystem services of Earth.

As many have made clear to us elsewhere, there is plenty of blame to go around for the distinctly human-forced predicament in which humanity finds itself in these early years of Century XXI. At least to me, it appears that all of us in the human community are implicated in this situation, even though no one among us is responsible for our circumstances. Collective thought and action is anticipated; more sensibly sharing resources and cooperating with one another as a family of humanity is in the offing, I suppose.

With warm regards,

Steve Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/


Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 14 Dec 07



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