Adapting to the impacts of climate change is a process by which humans and nature adjust to actual and expected shifting climate and its effects, with the purpose of moderating or minimizing harm. Humans, unfortunately, have the power to weaken, or even negate the adaptive potential and processes of ecosystems.
For decades, primarily for political reasons, governments, the United Nations, and environmental multilateral treaties have given priority to reducing greenhouse gases to fight climate change. Adaptation was basically ignored: it was not even defined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted at the Rio de Janeiro´s Earth Summit in 1992 .
Developed countries, the main emitters of greenhouse gasses, didn’t want to attract attention to adaptation, afraid of being seen as admitting their responsibility—thus, opening the door for developing countries to hold them accountable for their historical debt in the climate crisis. In addition, there was concern that focusing on adaptation could divert attention from the priority given to mitigation by the international community. The fact is that, for instance, in 2011 , 900 million people (13% of the global population) in the poorest 50 countries emitted only 0.8% of global CO2 , but were those suffering the most insidious impacts of climate change. Wealthier nations have more room to breathe when it comes to financing the transition to low-emission, climate-resistant societies.
It was not until the 2007 climate change summit in Bali, Indonesia, that the political profile of adaptation began to rise, eventually to become a pillar of climate action. At the 2010 summit in Cancún, Mexico, the programmatic framework and the Green Climate Fund were established to assist developing countries in coping with the immense costs of climate change impacts. Thanks largely to Mexico´s government leadership, the summit recognized that adaptation was as crucial as mitigation, and the need for preparation of national adaptation plans was agreed upon.
Unfortunately, as frequently happens, it was much easier to agree to the concept than to actually deliver on those commitments. The extraordinary momentum created in Cancún slowly vanished. But adaptation resurged as a critical component of the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 by 195 countries, and wealthier nations pledged much-needed funding in support of the more vulnerable countries. A reality check reveals, however, that once again, no meaningful progress ensued.
Conscious of the fact that responsibility for finding solutions is not solely the job of governments, the Global Commission on Adaptation was established in October 2018 to accelerate and scale up action, and to significantly augment financial resources for adaptation. The Commission is led by Bill Gates , Ban Ki-moon ( former UN Secretary-General ), and Kristalina Georgieva ( president of the World Bank ), with leaders from business, NGOs, science, and international banking, as well as ministers, former ministers and mayors from 17 nations serving as commissioners.
The Commission is preparing a flagship report to contribute to the UN climate summit next September and to the global adaption summit to be hosted by The Netherlands in October 2020 . But this global initiative goes beyond a report. It will hopefully inspire and rally all sectors of society to begin taking collective and bold actions, many of which are already at arm´s length. The report has the following five major components: scaling up ecosystem-based adaptation; integrating climate adaptation into financial decision-making; measuring effective adaptation; creating climate resilient cities; and leveraging deltas to address climate change.
One of us (Meade), commissioner for Mexico, with assistance from Vidal, is taking the Commission´s lead role on adaptation in nature and ecosystem services. A working meeting was recently held at the UN Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre , in Cambridge , United Kingdom , with experts from 13 countries of Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The group highlighted that nature offers enormous opportunities to foster human resilience by ensuring freshwater and food and energy security worldwide, and that ecosystem-based adaptation brings critical additional benefits, such as biodiversity conservation and mitigation of greenhouse gases.
The key messages from the group of experts were: (i) If we don’t protect nature, there will be no solutions that matter for humans to adapt to the impacts of climate change ; and (ii) There are real limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for humans and ecosystems at a global warming of 1.5°C.
Make no mistake—the stakes have never been higher. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just warned, warming from human-originated emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts. A stark reminder of what we can expect was given by the World Bank, which warns that increasing sea levels will drive 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 and that the number of climate refugees could soon be in the tens of millions.
The business world’s motto of “ adapt to survive ” has never seemed more apt. Our generation, and those generations that follow, no longer have the luxury of waiting for us to act decisively. We all must act, here and now. Time is of the essence.