Adaptation to Climate Change: Addressing the Unavoided and the Unavoidable
Confronting climate change requires global cooperation, recognition of past mistakes and failures, and the understanding that ecological interdependence ignores the artificial boundaries imposed by state sovereignty.
The 15th Conference of the Parties (COP-15) in Copenhagen, December 2009, must deliver an outcome that addresses avoidable, unavoided and unavoidable damage from climate change, and introduce a new paradigm of adaptation needs.
It is unequivocal that the cause of climate change is the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Scientific reports have found that most of the warming of
the Earth since the 1950s has been due to man’s own actions, specifically the burning of fossil fuels. The Earth’s atmosphere has been treated as a public good with the
assumption that the use of carbon space does not reduce the ability of others to do the same.
It is clear that we have exceeded the carbon capacity of the atmosphere, resulting in negative externalities with transboundary consequences. As David Held, Professor of
Global Governance at LSE, describes it, ‘the quality of the lives of others [has been] shaped and determined in near or far-off lands without their participation, agreement or consent’.
Thus through overconsumption of fossil fuels in the industrialised world, the North has largely been responsible for altering the global climate system, perturbing ecological cycles beyond repair, and permanently impacting the livelihoods of some of the worlds least developed and poverty-stricken communities.
‘Today carbon concentrations in the
atmosphere are at 390ppm, exceeding what
is widely considered to be the safe upper
The need to address the impact of climate change is discussed in this article beginning with an introduction to state sovereignty in the context of environmental damage and the UN as a forum for the drafting of international agreements dealing with climate change.
The impacts of climate change that need to be addressed within this UN framework are outlined with an emphasis on unavoidable harm and the need to recognise that
adaptation is no longer an ‘in situ’ process. A global deal to address climate change requires recognition of all three types of impact, emphasising the responsibility of
Polluting Parties to support unavoided impacts. Finally, a new definition of ‘second-order’ adaptation is proposed in acknowledgement of the unavoidable impacts to be faced in the future.
Pollution knows no borders
Climate change is a problem for a global community:
“Damage done to the environment… is damage done to humanity.”
- Armando Postiglione, author of ‘An International Court for the Environment’, 2001.
The organising structure of state sovereignty (i.e. the competence, independence and legal equality of states) does not correspond well with an environmental order
consisting of interdependent ecosystems that do not respect artificial national territorial boundaries.
Principle 21 of the UN Charter formally adopts the principle of state sovereignty in the context of international law, allowing, “States have… the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies”. Yet the same principle mandates that the States ensure “activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment in other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.
Thus ecological interdependence and transboundary harm in a governance structure founded on state sovereignty pose significant challenges that must be addressed through global cooperation.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
In this context, States established a ‘framework’ within which to address the global concern of climate change. Set up in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed to bring States together with the explicit aim of mitigating potential future damage to the environment caused by climate change. Those states party to the convention, agreed to “achieve… the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate”.
‘Funding of adaptation was considered an
implicit acceptance of responsibility for
climate change damages’
In pursuit of this objective, these Parties negotiated a protocol under the convention – the Kyoto Protocol – that sets emission limits for ratified countries. But the protocol has failed to achieve the UNFCCC objective: today carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are at 390ppm, exceeding what is widely considered to be the
safe upper boundary. Indeed, there appears to be little political will, particularly outside Europe, to ensure a net reduction in emissions over the next few decades.
The protocol failed because it was unable to secure the signature of the world’s largest GHG emitter at the time – the USA – delaying entry into force for 8 years. Furthermore, it has been unable to sanction those States who failed to comply with their targets. The failure to fulfil the UNFCCC objective has seen the emergence of those same ‘dangerous impacts’ that the convention set out to avoid.
The Avoidable, Unavoided and Unavoidable
There are three categories of impact that arise from transboundary harm and climate change: avoidable, unavoided and unavoidable impacts.
Avoidable impacts are foreseeable, predicted by modelling and forecasting. Such impacts are avoided through the mitigation of GHG emissions – the priority
of the Framework Convention.
However, some foreseeable climate change impacts will not be avoided because of delay or insufficient mitigation efforts, and delay in accessing adequate funding, technologies or capacity-building support.
Finally, some loss and damage from climate change impacts is unavoidable, regardless of future mitigation and resilience-building efforts. This last category of damage includes land that will be lost due to a rise in sea levels; agricultural land lost to persistent droughts and lives lost due to increasingly severe extreme weather events.
It is useful to delimit these categories of impacts, because although the UNFCCC objective targets avoidable impacts, it has proved inadequate in ensuring that unavoided damage is sufficiently addressed, and fails to acknowledge that dealing with unavoidable impacts is critical to the stability of our future world order.
Talking Shop: the Adaptation Discourse
It is critical that Parties to the UNFCCC take responsibility for historic emissions, recognise avoidableimpacts through ambitious mitigation efforts, and establish a mechanism that addresses the unavoided and unavoidable impacts based on the principle that the Polluter Pays.
However, the development of an understanding of how it is best to build resilience to unavoided and unavoidable climate change impacts has been slow. This is due to the
lack of explicit provision for ‘adaptation’ within the UNFCCC and diverse political obstacles.
Dealing with unavoidable and unavoided damages has in the past been considered as a ‘defeatist’ option. Support for this type of impact was considered an acknowledgement that mitigation efforts had been insufficient or ineffective.
“To admit the need to adapt sounds defeatist to negotiators, and also … adaptation seems more complicated than mitigation.”
- R. Verheyen and P. Roderick, authors of ‘Beyond adaptation’, 2008.
Adaptation discussions were also characterised as being ‘denialist’: discussion surrounding the funding of adaptation was considered an implicit acceptance of responsibility for climate change damages.
Therefore, although the Convention was established in 1992, it took until 2007 for Parties to recognise the urgent need to address adaptation. The route to Copenhagen,
the Bali Action Plan, aimed to develop a new global ‘deal’ to address climate change. This deal was due to be signed at the 15th Conference of the Parties (the COP-15) in
The political and epistemological barriers to addressing unavoided and unavoidable impacts of climate change have not disappeared and there are significant ‘gaps’ in the draft text of this new global deal.
Firstly, it does not seem likely that the UNFCCC deal will secure adequate funding for the full and incremental costs associated with adaptation actions. The UNDP estimates that new additional adaptation finance of at least US$100 billion a year will be required by 2020 to meet the most basic and pressing adaptation needs.
It is not clear that proposed pledges of climate finance for adaptation are distinct from existing aid packages. It seems there is simply a diversion of funds thus shifting,
but not solving, the problem of adaption financing. Indeed, the US downplays the need to secure long-term adaptation finance for developing countries.
It is as though the scale of funding contributed by an industrialised Party represents an admission of responsibility for causing damage: adaptation is still, to a large extent, a ‘denialist’ discourse.
This leads onto the second ‘gap’ which is the provision of mechanisms to address unavoided impacts: those impacts that were foreseeable, but that failed to be avoided due
to lack of mitigation or adaptation effort.
For many developing country Parties, dealing with unavoided impacts is a large additional burden that stands in the way of them achieving their foremost national priorities: poverty eradication and economic development. As India recently stated, “The adverse effects of climate change constitute an additional burden on all developing country Parties… to the extent that the incremental lifetime costs of investment in adaptation… are positive, they would have to be fully recompensed if
economic and social development and poverty alleviation are not to suffer”.
‘At least US$100 billion a year will be
required by 2020 to meet the most basic and
pressing adaptation needs’
Dealing with climate change impacts demands payments of compensation to those Parties having to deal with the additional burden of unavoided damage. The window of opportunity to mitigate these damages was not taken, the causal connection between emissions and impacts has been proven, and the lives of those least responsibility
have been permanently and negatively affected.
The new deal must contain an adaptation mechanism that secures sufficient funding and technology transfer in recognition of developing Party ‘entitlements’ to adaptation support. Furthermore, it must enable direct access and equitable governance of this support, prioritised for the most vulnerable countries. Finally, any deal must be compatible with the UN priority of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
The third ‘gap’ in the draft text is the failure to recognise the most severe impact of climate change: the loss of entire nation states. For Parties such as the Maldives, and other small island states, the effect of radical climate change may be the loss of an entire sovereign jurisdiction, the loss of national identity, and the need to provide for millions of people subsequently displaced. The IPCC itself has noted the threat that climate change poses to the sovereignty of these Parties.
“As for my own country, the Maldives, a mean sea level rise of 2 metres would suffice to virtually submerge the entire country of 1,190 small islands, most of which barely rise over 2 metres above mean sea level. That would be the death of a nation. With a mere 1 metre rise also, a storm surge would be catastrophic, and possibly fatal to the nation.” - President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, UN General Assembly, New York, 1997.
‘Sinking island states’ may be one of the most dramatic consequences of climate volatility. Adaptation opportunities for these areas will be limited “with potential options being limited to migration.” While human migration has always been a coping strategy for human societies, crucially we can now predict with some accuracy those communities that will need to move.
Ideally, a multilateral agreement should be drafted to ensure that territory elsewhere could be ceded to an affected State. Existing instruments in international law
do not provide for this and hence the new deal presents an opportunity to develop such a mechanism. In recognition of this, some experts have called for a new definition of adaptation to be incorporated into the new global deal.
‘The migration or displacement of entire
States is unprecedented and almost
This ‘second order’ adaptation recognises that adaptation is no longer a process of in situ resilience building, understanding that some communities will need to be relocated. Yet within the UNFCCC even the terminology “climate refugees” is controversial, and all but a passing reference to these populations has been removed from the draft text. It would appear that the complexity and political difficulty in providing for such numbers of displaced peoples is at present beyond the scope of negotiators who cannot even agree to support ‘in situ’ – or unavoided – adaptation needs.
A New Deal
Climate change impacts – avoidable, unavoided and unavoidable – will affect a global community. Ecological interdependence implies that we are all affected by the actions of far off lands, and that to some extent state sovereignty is redundant within this context. But despite the globe-wide implications of climate change, there remains a gross injustice: those who are most immediately and severely affected by global warming are those who have contributed least to the problem.
Delimiting three categories of climate change impacts provides a structure within which these impacts may be addressed within a new global deal. Effective and ambitious mitigation will reduce the need for, and costs of, avoidable damage that arise inequitably across the globe.
A renewed focus must be placed on the need to learn from the past: that the original objective of the UNFCCC has failed and that asserting state sovereignty in the context of transboundary harm creates great challenges. We are faced with an immediate and future need to address unavoided and unavoidable climate change impacts. Recognising these past mistakes is necessary in the run up to the COP-15, but it is not sufficient to ensure an adequate and fair deal in December 2009.
Nicola Peart was an MSc student at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College. She wrote her thesis on climate change adaptation, and the UNFCCC process. She has attended the negotiations since the start of 2009 and is currently working for the World Wildlife Fund. She is also part of a coalition supporting the formation of an International Court for the Environment (ICE). Her main interests are the development of second order adaptation policy as well as the wider legal aspects of the climate talks and the UNFCCC negotiating text.