Climate, conflict, peacebuilding and adaptation: a need for leaps and links

To assist poor countries facing the double and connected problems of climate change and violent conflict, adaptation to climate change has to be combined with peacebuilding. For this to be possible, organisations – governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental alike – that work on development, the environment and peace issues have to move out of their boxes and make more than one leap of imagination and policy so the links are visible between both problems and solutions. It is not inevitable that the Obama administration will succeed in this. Help is needed!

A week in Washington

This thought is one result of a week spent doing the rounds of Washington talking to people in the administration, the media and the NGOs. I wouldn’t claim I saw a representative group. A lot of the climate change folk were at the Bonn climate negotiations, for example. Others were just busy. In departments of government, I met nobody very senior. But a picture emerged and while it is by no means horrible it is not very encouraging.

Regular reads of this blog know that I really do like the way Obama does business. Never having expected him to be perfect, I am not especially disappointed by imperfections thus far, and some of the things he has done and said deserve real admiration.

 What I see on the climate/conflict issues could mean he has not yet paid it real attention, despite the prominence he has given to global warming. That could be encouraging because the issue needs Obama’s characteristic capacity to reframe issues, reshape the way they are discussed and re-position the US in a refreshed policy debate. The need for it reflects its absence so far; from what I saw in a brief visit to Washington, the US debate looks a bit stale.

Four steps to feeling depressed

The most depressing discussions I had were with some of the leading advocates of a responsible approach to global warming, talking about the Waxman-Markey climate change bill now being discussed by the US House of Representatives. There are, of course, some for whom the emission cuts are not radical enough. But my concern is to do with adaptation to the effects of global warming, especially international adaptation.  There are several steps in my concern. The first is cost. 

The bill for adaptation is going to be enormous – World Bank estimates show it is going to be at least tens of billions of US dollars a year, and what look like flaws in the methodology with which the cost was estimated suggest that the total bill could actually be hundreds of billions a year. Not all of this has to be covered by public spending and some of the really big ticket items in adapting infrastructure will probably only be done if private finance can be raised to invest in the projects. One thing we need now, in fact, is a proper study of what adaptation could cost under different scenarios shaped by how well the world does in cutting emissions. But however well we do on emission cuts, there will be a need for adaptation and it will be expensive.

Waxman-Markey would finance adaptation through a 1 per cent levy on the carbon trading scheme it plans to introduce. That 1 per cent would rise in 2021 to 2 per cent and in 2026 to 4 per cent. How much money that releases depends on the value of carbon; at currently predicted prices, there will be just under $700 million in 2012/3. If the rest of the world follows suit proportionately to shares of global emissions, that means a little under $3 billion as a global total. Depending on which of the current estimates you believe, that is as much as 6 per cent of what’s needed or barely 2 per cent of the way there – or a lot less if the methodology of the estimates was seriously flawed.

This could rise by the late 2020s, assuming the value of carbon rises by 25-30 per cent as the targets for cuts in emissions become more demanding, to around $4 billion from the US in a world total of about $16 billion a year – 30 per cent of what’s needed, or maybe not much more than 10 per cent, or less if the estimates of costs went very wrong.

So if you make the most optimistic assumptions about the accuracy of the low end of the range of current adaptation cost estimates, even though as the science of climate change improves the projected consequences consistently become more serious, and assume the rest of the world follows the US lead, then private financing would need to cover around 70 per cent of total adaptation costs. That would include significant investment in the poor and developing countries.

Frankly, I just don’t see it. Especially in the poorest countries that most need it. But that’s not what is depressing. That’s only step one.

Step two is that the figures I have mentioned seem to be totally unknown and outlandish in the American debate. Those people who know Congress laughed out loud when I went through the figures with them. More than 1 per cent rising to 4 per cent just isn’t on, I was told – oh, and please don’t broadcast these wacko figures because whatever we do, we mustn’t pull the rug out from under Waxman-Markey, which is the best available. When the Senate comes to consider the issue, it will be less ambitious in every respect.

But that’s only step two. Step three has two parts:

1: The background briefings from the Obama administration’s climate team are that they are not going to get ahead of the Congress on this.

2: In order to get a climate law as good as Waxman-Markey through the Senate this year, Obama will have to spend some political capital, call in favours and make promises, and he may have to do that at the same time as he is trying to get health reform through. All in all there will be plenty of Washington-type compromises, some of which will result in a law that is less far-reaching than he and his climate team would like.

In other words, everything in US politics tells us not to expect more than Waxman-Markey when it comes to international adaptation.

And the reason why this is so depressing? That’s step four. Basically, to get a climate deal at Copenhagen later this year, some serious money for adaptation is going to have to be on the table. Given the figures that the World Bank and the UN have been using for the past couple of years (and, to repeat, they may be too low), what the US looks like it might be offering is derisory.

That being the case, there is a real risk that, even though the US has begun to focus on the climate issue in a constructive way, the Copenhagen summit in December will nonetheless fail to find even an outline agreement. While the G-77 countries and China wait for Obama, he waits for Congress, who wait to see what China and the G-77 bring to the table, while they wait etc – and the stasis that results from this multi-sided stand-off means that the EU countries have no spur to resolve their internal differences and end their dithering, while allowing India and Russia to blame whomever they like for their own inaction.

But the really worrying thing…

But the thing is, there’s another set of problems. Because the thing about adaptation is that it’s not just a question of how much, it is also a question of how. It is possible to entertain two equal and seemingly opposite fears about adaptation: first, that not enough money will be put up; second, that it will simply be thrown at the problem , and too little money for adaptation will turn out to be enough to do a lot of damage.

The people who are negotiating about adaptation, by and large, don’t know much about development. When the global warming issue was in the hands of environmental movements and advocates, we didn’t hear much about adaptation; in Europe, it was the conscious view of environmentalists that if you talked about adapting to climate change you let governments off the hook of the urgency of stopping global warming and preventing climate change. But climate change is already happening and would continue even if carbon emissions were magically cut to pre-industrial levels tomorrow. The development organisations have now taken up the adaptation cudgels – and that is an apt metaphor because at the moment they are thinking in cudgel terms about getting shed-loads of money on the table.

Arguing about the Millennium Development Goals

And the trouble here is when the climate negotiators think about adaptation at all, they do so without paying attention to what has been learned about development over the past 30 years. And when the development organisations pick up the adaptation money cudgel, they do so using the language and approach of the Millennium Development Goals and the Make Poverty History campaign. Now that was an honourable campaign and the MDGs are the product of worthy aspirations, but if you take the MPH slogans and the MDG quantitative targets and try to make development strategy out of them, you trap yourself into a generic and technical approach that ignores the reality of the situation in the countries where development is least successful and the burden of poverty is the heaviest.

Raising these issues with interlocutors in Washington, I sometimes felt as if I was speaking a foreign language. People in the NGOs and some parts of government have not been able to get any traction for discussing development for years. Bush had to wave respectfully at the MDGs but he never believed in them. And I have the impression that a lot of people in Washington are operating on the basis that if Bush didn’t like it, that makes it good. Seen in this light, MDGs are by definition progressive and that’s enough. Notably Obama is a supporter of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and would apparently build US strategy for international development around them.

My problem is not that MDGs aren’t progressive. I think they express noble aspirations. But as soon as those aspirations are given quantitative, global level expression, it starts to go wrong. Obama won’t be able to make an international development strategy based on the MDGs because you can’t make a strategy out of quantitative targets, you can only make a wish list. He will be able to make a strategy that grows from the same aspirations that the MDGs express but he needs to steer clear of the global targets. If he tries to base strategy on the global numbers in the MDGs, he will give USAID a set of misleading objectives that will create perverse incentives. The result will risk channelling aid away from the countries that most need it because they are the hardest ones to work in (that’s why they most need it).

Sleepy giant (I hope)

But it also occurred to me that maybe that feeling of speaking a foreign language was needlessly downbeat. Perhaps the US, which is a giant in all these issues – climate change, peace and development – has been asleep. And now she’s beginning to wake up. But during that long deep sleep, the US didn’t hear a lot of what was being talked about, and although the sleep is over, perhaps the giant is still sleepy, still rubbing her knuckles in her eyes, not yet seeing things perfectly clearly though that will come soon.

And we who want the giant’s help have to acknowledge that the task in which we need it is genuinely complex. There is one leap to make to realise that the necessity of supporting adaptation means that climate change is not just an environmental but a development issue. And there is a second leap, to recognise that discussions about development assistance are now increasingly focusing not on the technical tasks but on the need to engage with the political institutions of rich and poor countries alike so as to work through a viable development strategy. A key element in this second leap involves linking the climate and development issues with the issues of governance and conflict (linking or straddling? – or both?).

It is an impossibly big ask to expect the giant to get all this all at once. Which simply means there is work to do.

4 thoughts on “Climate, conflict, peacebuilding and adaptation: a need for leaps and links

  1. Complicated stuff, and it may or may not work out well. But it’s great to see someone trying to find alternate solutions instead of ignoring the problem altogether, which is what society has been doing for too long.

    I’d love you to come check out my blog, which has to do exclusively with climate change, especially how it relates to ideas such as credibility and risk management. Link on my username. Thanks!

  2. Hi Dan,

    great to meet you while in DC. Sad to say, I confirm you basic view in this posting. I remember a conversation I had in Addis with an Ethiopian colleague last year. He was excited about Obama and asked, “is it possible he will win? How wonderful will it be?”

    I said, “I think he will win. And I think he will be good. But it will still be America, so remember. Even the best President can only move a big country a small distance.”

    Living and working on policy in Washington, you learn to measure out your victories in disappointly small increments. The scale is so big that the absolute numbers are large (billions and trillions). But the American political apparatus is designed for paralysis and only really take action in crisis (real or concocted). Notwithstanding the shouting of environmentalists (and, increasingly, development advocates), climate change isn’t really a crisis in Washington.

    I suppose it will be – but thousands – millions of people will have to suffer before that comes clear.

    Meantime, we do our best.


  3. And I hope you understand, Gawain, that my aim – even when my comments sound a bit critical – is working along with you, doing our best. I could maybe have said in the post that one thing I am worried about is a possible tendency outside the US to leave it all to Obama. Not good enough – as you confirm, help is indeed needed!

    Thanks for your comment and it was likewise good to meet you and your colleagues.

  4. Pingback: Climate adaptation: Brown paints the big money picture – now to get the details right « Dan Smith’s blog

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