Business, Finance & Economics

Adapting to a warming world


ROME — The world’s leaders officially gave up on stopping climate change. The G8 agreed to limit the warming of the world to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or about four times as much of a global temperature change as the world has seen since the last ice age and the dawn of human civilization.

The decision wasn’t altogether a new one. None of the plans being discussed in Washington, Brussels, or elsewhere, including the Waxman-Markey bill before the U.S. Senate, would mandate cuts deep enough to ensure even that level of warming.

Yet the proposed target does highlight an important fact about the future of the fight against climate change: If we’re no longer committed to heading off a warmer world, we’ll have to adapt to living in one.

Emissions from our cars, factories and power plants have already warmed the earth about 1 degree Fahrenheit. And while in most cases it’s impossible to identify the impacts of the rising temperature against natural variations in the earth’s climates, it’s clear that the planet has been knocked off balance. Climate change may already be responsible for disruptions of rain cycles, changes in the growing season of plants, the migration of pests and disease-carrying insects, a rise in the number of natural disasters, and the rapid melting of the world’s icecaps and glaciers.

And as our emissions continue to remold the world, those impacts will only get more intense. While greenhouse gases have largely been produced by the richest countries, the ones who will suffer their harshest consequences are the world’s poorest.

The advocacy group Oxfam says that two degrees of warming “entails a devastating future for at least 660 million people,” and claims that while developed countries often promise to help ease the transition, they rarely follow through with actions. Adaptation funds often come out of existing international aid budgets, rather than new consisting of new funding. Of $18 billion pledged by Western governments to help poor countries deal with the effects of global warming, Oxfam calculates that less than $1 billion has been delivered.

“If the U.S. is not ready to cut its emissions dramatically, then it really is incumbent on it to assist the countries that are going to be hit,” said David Waskow, climate change program director for Oxfam America.

Perhaps the formal acknowledgement that our grandchildren’s world will be different from the one we live in today will spark an effort to prepare for the upcoming changes.

Much of the criticism leveled against the climate change bill now winding its way through the U.S. Senate makes the case that the legislation won’t do enough to stop global warming. It’s true that in the absence of further action in the U.S. and similar efforts in other countries, the Waxman-Markey bill won’t by itself make a deep enough dent in global emission. But without it, the U.S. will have little chance in convincing other countries to rein in their greenhouse gases.

Regardless of what one might think about the bill’s impact on global emissions, in the realm of adaptation it will make difference — albeit perhaps only a small one. Oxfam calculates that if
signed into law as it currently stands, the legislation would provide $650 million a year for adaptation by 2015. While still far short of what will actually be needed to offset the detrimental impacts of climate change, the proposed funding marks a significant step up from nearly nothing.

“It opens the door in a way that it has not been opened seriously before now,” Waskow said.

The question now becomes how wide activists like Waskow can swing it open.

More GlobalPost dispatches on the environment:

Climate negotiations stagnate at G8

On climate, it's Washington v. Beijing

The Dutch plan to combat rising seas