The Adaptation Dilemma

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Shreeya Joshi, C+S ’18

A woman farmer in Nepal. (Source: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Two years ago in Paris, the world agreed that we need to keep the planet from warming more than 2°C. The Paris Agreement further argues pursuing efforts to limit it further to 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels. This daunting task of addressing climate change requires a two pronged approach of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the already changing climate.

Mitigation is clear cut. There are already metrics to measure mitigation efforts in tons of carbon emitted or not. These projects are easier than adaptation ones to implement and sees more returns, meaning more finance is allocated to them.

Adaptation, however, is more murky. Adaptation is more cross-sectoral in nature, meaning a project in one sector such as agriculture may have adaptation benefits or adverse impacts in other sectors such as water or land usage. This makes it more difficult to create a set of metrics that clearly measure the impacts of adaptation projects. There is also a disagreement on the best scale for implementing adaptation efforts, such as whether it should be more localized so vulnerable communities are the first to see its benefits or at a national or regional scale. These competing ideas make it harder to implement these projects, which also makes it difficult to secure finance for them.

However, with business-as-usual mindset and world leaders refusing to take urgent action to address emissions, adaptation will take on ever greater importance. Sustained and planned adaptation efforts are going to be key to making communities resilient to the impacts of climate change.

The World Bank Group is one of the organizations taking a lead in the sector by developing its own adaptation and resilience strategy. This strategy aims to step up World Bank actions on climate change and resilience by helping it integrate and consider systematic climate risk management in projects and address adaptation issues, ultimately leading to a transformation of developmental pathways.

As a leading multilateral development bank that works with both governments and the private sector, the World Bank is uniquely placed to effectively institute an adaptation and resilience strategy that can help pave the way for other organizations to follow suit.

However, my experience as an intern at the World Bank Climate Change Group this summer has shown me that the pathway to developing such a strategy is not easy. There are seven task teams that work on various pieces of the strategy such as developing metrics, analyzing science, knowledge and tools already in place, analyzing the finance aspect, and analyzing external partnerships. Additionally, the teams also have to consider input from the bank’s organizational units of Regions and Global Practices in order to figure out the gaps and barriers to adaptation in the different sectors and various regions.

The rationale for adaptation is clear. Science shows that we are beginning to face impacts of climate change and the world needs to adapt by ensuring already vulnerable populations are more resilient. However, what is not clear is “what is it that we should be adapting to?”

Though we know climate change impacts are certain, we do not know how they might unfold and making a decision as to what future climate we should be adapting to is a contested idea. For example, though globally we’ve decided on a threshold of 2°C over pre-industrial levels, this will lead to uneven impacts regionally. Some regions may face worse impacts than other regions, and waiting for a global threshold of 2°C can be harmful to these vulnerable regions.

Nevertheless, the World Bank is dealing with these challenges head on and developing a strategy that aims to move the needle in this sector. Since the adaptation and resilience strategy was commissioned by the Climate Change Group leadership, the backing from senior employees including the bank’s CEO has helped make the process easier and brought together colleagues from across the organization to define the adaptation narrative and make progress in developing key recommendations.

However, the World Bank Group cannot advance these goals alone. In fact, partnerships have never been more important. How global agencies work together to tackle climate change can help determine the fate of the world. If we are to help communities become resilient to the inevitable impacts of climate change, it will take more of this transformative thinking and collaboration.

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