Bridging the Climate Change Gap

Since his inauguration in January, President Barack Obama has promised to take the problem of climate change seriously and step into a leadership role in the global negotiations. Congressional leadership on climate has also swelled to deliver domestic climate change legislation. But a “blind spot” seems to be emerging that may make it more difficult for the United States to play the leadership role it wishes — and the world needs it — to play.

While the previous U.S. administration remained largely disengaged from the global community on climate change in the last eight years, much has happened both with respect to our understanding of the many facets of the climate change problem and also with attempts to respond to those different facets. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it very clear that climate change is no longer just a problem of the long-term future that we can prevent through reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but also a problem of the present and near-term future that we can no longer prevent but must face and cope with through adaptation. Pursuing mitigation strategies without addressing adaptation has been a serious blind spot in U.S. policymaking.

The poorest, most vulnerable communities around the world will bear the brunt of the inevitable impacts of climate change in the near term. Small island developing states — from Tuvalu, Samoa and Fiji in the Pacific Ocean to the Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and Haiti and Grenada in the Caribbean — are most at risk, given their vulnerability to sea-level rise and hurricanes. And the poorest countries in the world — from countries in sub-Saharan Africa to Bangladesh and Nepal in South Asia, and Cambodia and Laos in Southeast Asia — are extremely vulnerable to floods, droughts, and sea-level rise. They have few resources and little capacity to cope with these effects of climate change.

About 100 countries — with a total population of nearly a billion people but less than 3% of the global emissions of greenhouse gasses — will shoulder the burden of climate change impacts in the near term.

Recognizing this, members of the conference of parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — including the United States — agreed to create a fund made up of voluntary contributions to support the poorest countries adapt. Created in 2001, this Least Developed Countries (LDC) Fund supports countries identify their most vulnerable sectors and communities and prioritize and implement the most immediate and urgent adaptation actions.

Over 40 countries have completed their “national adaptation program of action,” creating a minimum to-do list of adaptation projects. Such projects include upgrading early warning systems for storms, installing efficient irrigation systems, planting mangrove buffers along the coast to diffuse storm waves, and building climate-resilient housing. The estimated costs of implementing all the adaptation projects so far identified is likely to amount to just under $2 billion over the next few years. But the amount of funding pledged to the LDC Fund at present is less than $200 million.

The United States, as the world’s richest country and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, didn’t pledge a single cent to this fund over the last eight years under President George W. Bush. This has left a significant credibility deficit for the United States that Obama and Congress need to address if they wish the United States to claim a leadership role at the global level on climate change.

Thus, a good way to overcome this “Bush deficit” would be for the United States to allocate up to several hundred million dollars over the next few years to the LDC Fund to enable the poorest and most vulnerable countries to undertake adaptation actions that they have already identified.

While Obama’s proposed budget includes the option of allocating up to $100 million to the LDC fund, it’s unclear if members of Congress will have the political will to make it happen. But they must. Not only will such a contribution show goodwill in the ongoing climate negotiations, it would give the United States the credibility to be taken seriously for walking the walk and not just talking the talk in international climate negotiations.

Saleemul Huq is senior fellow at the Climate Change Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) based in London, United Kingdom and also a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He has been a lead author on adaptation science with the IPCC and advises the LDC Group in the UNFCCC negotiations.