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Fighting climate change - while adapting to it

Rain cloud Nicholas_t/Flickr
Looking for a silver lining
Environmental scientists are calling on policy-makers to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change, rather than focus resources on reducing carbon emissions alone.

"The effort and money spent on mitigation is enormous compared to adaptation," said Andrew Ash, director of the climate adaptation flagship at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

"There is a huge lack of awareness about the need for adaptation. Scientists need to get in there and start to influence policy," he said during a three-day climate change adaptation conference on Australia’s Gold Coast this week.

Scientists reiterated that marginalized groups contribute the least to climate change but stand to suffer the most.

“In India, women are very vulnerable to climate change because they don’t have social equality,” said Shailendra Kumar Mandal, a professor at the National Institute of Technology Patna in India. “Women often have no land ownership and poor access to health services.”

He said India would have one of the largest populations in the world that would have to adapt to climate change, as numbers are predicted to grow by 300 million to 700 million over the next 40 to 50 years.

“We expect severe drought in the west of India, and our coastal megacities, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata will have to deal with severe flooding as sea levels rise.”

These cities are part of the Asian mega-deltas, the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, along with small islands and Africa. The Asian mega-deltas also include Guangzhou, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, which are also already experiencing more intense tropical cyclones.

“We are having trouble communicating these changes to the most vulnerable. We need to give them time to adapt,” Mandal said.

Mitigation and adaptation

Climate change adaptation covers a broad range of efforts, from implementing early-warning systems for natural disasters to transforming land use and moving homes away from coastlines.

While both mitigation and adaptation efforts are needed to tackle climate change, scientists warn of the dangers of prioritizing one over the other.

Related links
Tool to help NGOs adapt to climate risks
Adaptation from Copenhagen to Cancún
IRIN's in-depth on climate change
FILM: The Gathering Storm - Asia Short Films on Climate Change (Sep 2009)
Speaking on the linkages of climate change mitigation and adaptation, Bruno Locatelli from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said trade-offs between the two needed to be considered.

“Building dams and dykes to improve water management, for example, could have adverse effects on mitigation efforts,” he said. While they help control flooding, they also erode soil, potentially releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.

Billions needed

Martin Parry, a professor of climate change policy from Imperial College, London, estimates the cost of adaptation at US$50 billion annually, which would cover transformations in agriculture, water, health, infrastructure and coast lines.

During climate change talks in Copenhagen last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said her country was committed to joining others in mobilising $100 billion annually to climate change aid for developing countries.

“If half of that goes to adaptation, then this estimate is a reasonable cost,” Parry said. “But it would mean doubling our current spending on overseas aid.”

Joseph Alcamo, chief scientist of the UN Environment Programme [], told IRIN that no one really knew whether mitigation or adaptation warranted more money.

“Even as a scientist I can’t yet make a judgment about which to give more attention to, so it would be wise to give them both equal attention,” he said.

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