Friday, July 10, 2009

Mixing mitigation and adaptation at the G8 summit

The climate change discussions at the G8 Summit have been a blank canvas upon which media outlets and commentators can project their judgments on the state of climate change policy. Is the story the agreement on a 2 deg C threshold? The lack of agreement with China and India? The refusal of Russia and Canada to pledge their own countries to an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050? The disagreement over the baseline year for calculating emissions cuts?

Many of the more thoughtful articles have focused on the efforts to negotiate with developing nations on adaptation and development issues (that's a broken Kiribati seawall in the photo). The Globe and Mail, for example, ran a frontpage story entitled “Obama bends to bring emerging nations on side” complete with an unsubtle full fold photo of the back of US President’s rapidly graying head (a welcome to the world of climate change policy?).

The G8 leaders have pledged to help developing countries meet costs associate with reducing emissions. The reporting and (at least some of) the actual G8 discussion was mixing two quite different issues. First, how and how much to help emerging economies like China and India now responsible for a large fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions reduce those emissions without slowing their development. Second, how to help developing countries more vulnerable to climate disasters adapt to climate change.

These are not the same things, and they will require different policies and different pots of money. The first is more about trade policy, setting environmental standards, etc. The second is more about international aid. We need to help countries like Kiribati or Mali, adapt to climate change far more than we need to help those countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither task will be easy. Most policy discussions implicitly assume that getting the emerging economies like China to slow, stabilize or reverse emissions growth will be harder than helping the Kiribatis and the Malis adapt to climate change. The assumption comes in large part from ignorance of the hands-on, day-to-day challenge of international aid projects, especially those aimed at the often nebulous goal of increasing the adaptability of a different society to outside pressures, whether climate change, other environmental change, or global trade. In the end, we may discover that bringing China into an emissions policy is actually far easier than deciding whether, how, where and when to build sea walls in Kiribati.

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