OPINION: As climate threats rise, now's the time to adapt

by Sunil Acharya | Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance
Monday, 25 January 2021 16:11 GMT

A boy walks along an alley as the river overflows due to incessant rainfall at a slum along the bank of Bagmati River in Kathmandu, Nepal July 20, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

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Communities trying to adapt to the impacts of a heating planet need money and more local decision-making power to succeed

Sunil Acharya is Practical Action’s regional advisor for climate and resilience in Nepal, which is a member of the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance. 

With global economic activity stymied by COVID-19 and with air travel falling dramatically, you might think this would limit global warming.  

You'd be wrong.  

In December a little-known report warned that we're on track for a 3 degree rise in temperatures, even if existing commitments are met, smashing efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels under the Paris Agreement. 

This would have catastrophic impacts on the world's most vulnerable people, leading to an increase in the frequency of potentially devastating natural hazards like floods and droughts. 

There is room for hope but not for platitudes on climate action. 

We need action now. 

2021 will be a ‘supercharged’ year of climate action, culminating with COP26 in Glasgow – among the most important climate talks ever. 

It starts this week in the Netherlands with the Climate Adaptation Summit. This summit might not generate widespread mainstream media attention. But it is no less vital than COP26.  

We know from experience that helping people adapt to climate change is essential to safeguarding livelihoods, education, future prosperity and addressing deepening inequality, especially in fragile states considered most vulnerable to climate change.  

That’s why, now more than ever, it is critical to understand the climate related hazards they face. These communities are on the frontlines of the crisis and we all have a duty to help them.  

What’s troubling is, as our recent report revealed, these communities are impeded from building resilience to climate change because of inadequate funding and authority for decision-making at local levels. 

After all, a coastal community in Bangladesh is far better placed to advise on flood mitigation to protect schools and homes than donors in European capitals. 

Besides insufficient funding, money that is dedicated to climate change isn’t reaching the communities that need it the most.  An IIED study found that less than 10% of funding committed by international funders to help developing countries take action on climate change is directed at the local level. 

Another report by ODI found that between 1991 and 2010, nearly 87% of disaster-related aid spending went into emergency response, reconstruction, and rehabilitation, and only 13% towards reducing and managing risks before they became disasters. 

Continued lack of funding for climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction at local level presents a major barrier for communities and local authorities to harness their own critical knowledge to build resilience of the most vulnerable people. 

Moreover, it's galling that a report last week from the UN's environment programme found that governments are failing to do enough to help people adapt to climate chaos. 

It’s at odds with estimates that show that every dollar invested in flood risk reduction avoids, on average, five dollars in future losses. 

How do we fix this? 

Given that the devastating impacts of climate change are felt most immediately and severely at the local level, the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance has, since 2013, focused on building climate resilience at the community level in countries like Peru, Mexico and Nepal. 

This is a no brainer because local communities are usually the first responders after hazards hit and are best placed to understand, prepare for and respond to the climate crisis. They are aware of their own vulnerabilities and understand how to build meaningful, local-level resilience that meets their needs.  

Time after time, my colleagues at Practical Action and other partner organisations in the Alliance have shown that with the right investment, institutional knowledge and understanding of the communities most at risk from climate change, successful adaptation using the examples here at scale is possible. 

Yet, humanitarian practitioners and local level policy makers (i.e. mayors and line ministries) are constrained in their efforts to build resilience or scale successful activities by the woeful lack of local financing for building resilience to climate change. 

This must change. 

Funders, bilateral, multilateral, and national governments, must rethink climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction funding to prioritise strengthening local institutions, from local government to civil society organisations. 

Funding commitments must be long-term and flexible so that communities can help people adapt to and cope with climate change, based on the specific needs of the most vulnerable. 

If we do all of this and more then humanity can future-proof itself against the worst of man-made global warming, which we have to accept, to a lesser or greater extent, is baked in.  

When we know what works, not to act to protect climate vulnerable communities is unacceptable, and it won't help us in our race to climate resilience. 

Now is the time for humanity to confront climate change, our greatest ever existential threat. To do so, we need governments in the global north to step up and commit to closing the financial gap so we can adapt at an unprecedented scale now.