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Sensible utopia

by Hans Dembowski
Doing nothing is expensive. It will cost a lot to fix climate damages that could have been avoided. Experts and action groups have been demanding systematic climate protection for decades. But business leaders and politicians argued time and again that such action would be too expensive, and that things would not turn out as bad as pessimists believe.

Nonsense. Today, the impact of climate change is to be felt in cyclones, floods, droughts as well as in the erosion of fertile soil and coastal landforms.

Since 1992, international climate diplomacy has revolved around reducing greenhouse emissions. At the Bali summit last year, however, this “mitigation” agenda was joined by one on “adaptation” to now-inevitable climate change. This is the bill for not having done enough on mitigation. Developing countries will need $ 10 to 80 billion a year to avoid distress and disaster.

Meanwhile, the borders between climate and development policy are blurring ever more. Those hardest hit by extreme weather are poor and marginalised groups. The reason is simple: the more resources people have at their dispo­sal (money, land, education et cetera), the better they can prepare for change. So poverty reduction is a dimension of any sensible adaptation strategy. Moreover, infrastructure (transport routes, water pipelines, power supply, schools, health-care centres and so on) has always been a core area of development efforts. Such systems must now be made climate-proof.

For more than one reason, established donor agencies are offering to play leading roles in adaptation. On the one hand, they are actually qualified to do so thanks to their experience in international cooperation. On the other hand, they have a vested interest in expanding their business.

Donor nations and many multinational institutions enjoy little trust in the developing world. Too many promises have been broken. Most rich nations won’t meet the emission-reduction targets they signed up to in Kyoto. The dominant industrial powers, moreover, tend to apply double standards. In the Asian crisis, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank called for major banks to be allowed to collapse in the name of free markets. But now that the USA and EU got themselves into similar trouble, there is little talk of such bitter pills. It is true that bailouts in rich nations are good for the global economy and thus are in the interest of all countries. But that does nothing to reduce the rancour over Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries having suffered more than was necessary a decade ago.

Despite justified skepticism about donor agencies, however, it would be patently absurd to create new bureaucracies to implement an international adaptation policy alongside development cooperation. It would make better sense to improve the institutions and practices that already exist. Doing so will require pressure from all sides – the media, science, critical organisations, governments and parliaments – to increase transparency and efficiency.

To many, hope for aid effectiveness may seem a mere pipedream. But only a few months ago, the chances of a black politician becoming president of the United States were deemed equally remote. Barack Obama said a lot of sensible things on climate issues. Now, he has a rare personal opportunity to restore international confidence, which was shattered in the Bush years and even before. After repairing that damage, he may achieve a lot more at the global level.