Energy & Environmental Policy

Climate Change … or Not?


In recent articles, I’ve been arguing that America has a teenager’s worst attitude about climate change: We need to stop slouching to our rooms and slamming doors shut, and start engaging developing countries on the issues that matter to them, like adapting to climate change within those countries’ borders and mitigating it within our own.

However, there is one complication that could be a barrier to our acceptance of climate change as a driver for development programs – sometimes it’s really, really hard to determine what is caused by climate change and what just could be climate change-related but isn’t. I saw this dilemma played out within development agencies across Ethiopia many times.

Ethiopia, as previously discussed, believes wholeheartedly in the problem of climate change and in its role in creating the droughts, floods and livestock kills that plague the majority of its citizenry. However, one could argue, and many development workers there do, that some of the problems being addressed by climate change adaptation are actually the result of mismanagement of natural resources.

Land degradation through overgrazing, deforestation, or a host of other human activities is prevalent here and causes problems for the livelihoods of the agriculturalists or pastoralists. It can be difficult to determine what is climate and what is not, something that causes consternation within the ranks of workers from countries more skeptical about climate change than Ethiopia.

Even so, these non-climate-related problems are exacerbated by climate change and related shocks. Land degradation creates situations where Ethiopians are continually on the edge of starvation, and changing rain patterns and droughts push them over into the arms of humanitarian assistance and food aid.

However, the inability to be certain which problems are caused by which overarching condition makes it difficult for development agencies to figure out how to fund adaptation.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for a substantial amount of new and additional funding to address climate change through mitigation and adaptation projects. But who gets to determine which projects are adaptation projects? For instance, in Ethiopia, is every project that makes agricultural communities more resilient an adaptation project, or are some of these projects addressing land degradation instead? Can donors consider a pre-existing pastoralist support project to be new and additional adaptation spending even if these projects were previously considered to be food security or social capacity building? What about projects that build social capital and community resiliency by educating women or creating cooperatives – are those adaptation?

Furthermore, how do we convince the American public that climate change is important if we’re not even sure what is climate change and what isn’t?

Most development workers in Ethiopia had simply decided that the question was not one that needed to be addressed. The important thing, the general consensus appeared to be, was that communities were more resilient and better prepared for crises, regardless of whether their resiliency had been damaged by climate change or their own actions. These crises are more frequent and acute due to climate change, and so resiliency projects are adaptation. Done and done.

Development workers had also apparently given up on the UNFCCC’s idea of new and additional funding. True adaptation can’t be produced by stand-alone climate adaptation projects – it must be worked into the fabric of each and every development project. Adding adaptation features to existing projects and creating new projects that address adaptation within the framework of a larger goal results in an increase in funding for climate change adaptation that can’t be quantified as new and additional, and perhaps can’t even be quantified at all.

The definition of adaptation, the outline of the problem of climate change – these things are more problematic than we’d like them to be. The international community, perhaps, should change its attitude and be more flexible in how it calls for each member to address the problem. Those participating in the UNFCCC especially need to be more cognizant of the truly complicated nature of climate change funding and development when setting goals.

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