OPINION: It's about time we took investing in adaptation seriously

by Richard Klein and Tabea Lissner | Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
Friday, 10 June 2022 06:40 GMT

People stand near the remains of a building, which was destroyed during flooding leaving several people dead, at the KwaNdengezi Station, near Durban, South Africa, April 16, 2022. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The consequences of extreme weather are cascading around the globe, hitting rich and poor alike - yet finance to build resilience to these impacts is falling woefully short

Between April 11-12, a year's worth of rain fell on KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in South Africa, leaving 400 dead and a trail of destruction in its wake. Six hundred schools were closed, 40,000 people evacuated and the country's main port was shuttered, all leaving a clean-up bill of around $1.57 billion.

Three elements stand out in the aftermath.

One, scientists are clear that climate change made those floods twice as likely as before, such was the weight and intensity of the rain. Two, it’s key to have infrastructure that can hold up to extreme weather, as well as systems to warn people early so they can get to safety: neither seems to have been in place in KwaZulu-Natal province. Three, this was a local event with global implications - closing a key port and shutting down a major supply chain route for a week.

The obvious conclusion is that countries need to work together collectively to reduce the global greenhouse gas levels driving extreme weather events. But another conclusion is increasingly obvious too: poorer countries share climate risks with richer countries, and richer countries share climate risks with poorer ones.

Read more: Climate change and a 'just transition'

From crops like maize, rice, wheat and soy to equipment for machinery, transport and minerals, supply chains run across sectors and the globe. When the floods damaged the port of Durban, one of the companies forced to suspend operations was Danish - shipping giant Maersk. With 20% of total Africa-China trade going out from the port in Durban, the problems there meant Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo were waiting for their cobalt, copper and lithium exports to leave the port, while China was waiting for these imports to arrive.    

In the past year, extreme storms and brutal heatwaves have hit poor and vulnerable countries like Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi, middle-income countries like South Africa, India and the Philippines, and wealthy nations such as Germany, Canada and the United States. The effects and consequences of these events have cascaded around the globe.

Read more: Indian workers suffer as heatwaves turn factories into 'furnaces'

The 2021 flooding in the Canadian province of British Columbia disrupted roads and railways in Vancouver, but it also delayed freight destined for the port there, Canada’s gateway to Asia. The recent heatwave in India dimmed prospects for the wheat harvest and pushed up prices on the domestic market, leading the government to restrict exports. Asian neighbours that import wheat from India started scrambling for alternatives on a market already upset by the fallout from Russia’s war on major wheat producer Ukraine.

High levels of warming would hit major economies hard: to dwindle by 36% in the United States by 2100, 42% in China and 92% in India if emissions are high. Impacts would ripple across the globe. If climate change reduces the yield of maize in its biggest producing country, the United States, by as much as 45.5% by the end of the century, consumers in Costa Rica, Jamaica and Japan who depend on these maize imports would all feel the hit.

‘GLOBAL SHIELD’

As record-shattering extreme weather events become ever more probable, poor and vulnerable people and nations will continue to pay the highest price. If we don’t act, the ones that have done the least to cause the climate crisis will lose the most lives per capita, and their roads and buildings will be most destroyed.

The U.N.-led effort to protect everyone on Earth with early warning systems within the next five years is an important step towards saving lives. The “global shield against climate risks” that G7 development ministers committed to recently should mean that insurance will start covering the financial costs of the poor at highest physical climate risk. The G7 climate and environment ministers are also on the right track, pledging “enhancing adaptation efforts while urgently reducing emissions”.

But the scale of action needs to dramatically increase. Adaptation finance was estimated at roughly $20 billion per year in 2019. A doubling of commitments, as agreed in the Glasgow Climate Pact, and reiterated by G7 foreign ministers, would bring adaptation finance into the vicinity of $40 billion.

At this rate, we will fall woefully short of what the latest science tell us adaptation will cost. Median values for cost estimates stand at $127 billion in 2030 and $295 billion in 2050. It sounds big, but for comparison, fossil fuel subsidies estimated by the International Energy Agency stood at $440 billion in 2021.

Political leaders must step up to advance resilience, first by acknowledging that extreme weather events and direct climate risks are hitting harder and more often. Secondly, they should own up to the fact that adaptation is what the Paris Agreement says it is: a global challenge and necessity. Third, they need to use established and new forms and forums of international cooperation to manage the increasing climate risk we all share – with a focus on providing additional finance dedicated to adaptation.

As leaders prepare for the G7 summit in Germany later this month, we need these global leaders of the wealthiest nations to actually lead globally, together.

Richard Klein leads work on international climate risk and adaptation at the Stockholm Environment Institute and has been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1994.

Tabea Lissner is head of adaptation and vulnerability at Climate Analytics and was a Working Group II lead author for the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.