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Patrick Chappatte, The International Herald Tribune

24 Hours of Reality Forgot About People

Climate Change Efforts Should Focus on Adaptation


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Every year since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into force in 1994, the UN has held massive international conferences of representatives from countries that are Parties to the Convention. The Convention has been signed by nearly all the world’s nations, including the United States, and sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to “tackle the challenge posed by climate change.” The most important part of these conferences is the Conference of the Parties (COP), the “supreme body” of the Convention. From November 11–22, 2013, the 19th annual COP takes place at the next UNFCCC meeting in Warsaw, Poland.

Nicely timed to broadcast in advance of the next United Nations conference on climate change, Al Gore’s 24 Hours of Reality — which showed October 22-23 — ironically had little to say about helping people adapt to climate change.

Across the globe, many people suffer and die from extreme weather and, ultimately, dangerous climate change. These phenomena are a normal part of our planet’s dynamic environment, one we must properly prepare for and adapt to or suffer the consequences. History is littered with examples of societies that failed largely because they could not cope with extreme climate change. A good example was the once prosperous Greenland Viking colonies which perished when the Medieval Warm Period ended in the mid 14th century. Even today, indigenous populations in the Arctic and the Sahel region of Africa experience severe hardship due in part to natural climate change.

In the 24 Hours of Reality broadcast, Gore’s primary “solution” to the alleged global warming crisis is to drastically cut back on our emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) that he believes are causing climate problems. This will eventually mitigate, or stop, the climate crisis, he tells us. When the program’s guests brought up adaptation, the hosts usually steered the conversation back to mitigation. Gore himself said little about helping vulnerable populations cope with climate change that we see happening today.

Most sensible people see Gore’s approach as backward. Helping people suffering from climate change in the present, however caused, is obviously far more important than helping people yet to be born who may experience climate problems in the future.

Yet according to a report just issued from the San Francisco–based Climate Policy Initiative, only 6 percent of the approximately $359 billion spent each year across the world on climate finance goes to helping people adapt to climate change today. The rest goes to trying to stop dangerous manmade global warming that computer simulations forecast may happen decades in the future. This is in direct contradiction to the approach agreed to in Copenhagen, where participants in the 2009 United Nations climate conference committed to a 50-50 funding split between adaptation and mitigation.

Even in the developed world, it is far more productive to focus on adaptation than spending vast sums on mitigation no matter what you believe about the causes of climate change. The New York Times published a letter to the editor from a Manhattan-based lawyer who explained that, even in the middle of Hurricane Sandy, he had uninterrupted Internet, telephone, and electric power because all of his cables were buried underground. This is one example of how we need to harden our societies to withstand extreme events, independent of their causes. We need to reinforce buildings and strengthen public infrastructure by building levees and upgrading our irrigation systems where needed. We also need to relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from tornadoes and hurricanes. The cost will be huge, but recent studies show that it is far cheaper than trying to stop these events from happening. Regardless, we have no other responsible choice. Our expanding population will continue to put increasing numbers of people in harm’s way if we do not undertake major adaptation projects.

Yet mitigation has received the lion’s share of climate finance for several reasons. First, it is highly profitable for large corporations engaged in carbon trading and alternative energy generation through wind and solar power. Growing biofuels also leads to windfall profits for large agri-business conglomerates. Mitigation expands government control of the economy and gives politicians an excuse to raise taxes to cover society’s CO2 emissions. It also furthers the objectives of one-world government advocates since international mitigation agreements increasingly bring oil, coal, and natural gas combustion, 85 percent of all energy generation in the world, under UN control. Finally, since mitigation, not adaptation, is the focus of loud environmental lobby groups and most climate researchers, politicians feel they must craft “global solutions to a global problem” to generate favorable media coverage.

By comparison, adaptation involves local actions to solve local problems. For example, building a dike is only necessary if local sea level rise is a problem. Trends in mean sea level across the world are immaterial. Similarly, providing air conditioners to senior citizens is only necessary if heat waves are problematic in regions where seniors actually live. It makes no difference whether the planet as a whole is warming or cooling.

The sort of boots-on-the-ground approach needed for many adaptation projects is not attractive for politicians and activists intent on saving the planet. Adaptation projects are generally not very profitable for multinational corporations. Adaptation does not prop up multimillion-dollar computerized climate research, does nothing to further government or UN control of the economy, and offers little for media seeking exciting headlines.

Adaptation takes leadership and hard, grinding work to make happen. It may not be glamorous, but it is something successful societies have always had to do. It is the real climate reality Al Gore should focus on.

Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada–based International Climate Science Coalition (climatescienceinternational.org).

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