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How Communities and Countries Can Adapt to Climate Change: An Interview with Mohamed El-Ashry

Aug 29, 2011 | Daniel F. Morris

Daniel Morris, center fellow at the RFF Center for Climate and Electricity Policy, sat down with Mohamed El-Ashry, RFF board member and retired CEO and chairman of the Global Environment Facility, to discuss international climate negotiations and priorities for adaptation. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.

Morris: How do you define adaptation? When people ask you about it, what do you tell them?

El-Ashry: Adaptation is about building resilience and reducing vulnerability. People and natural systems are being affected by climate change. If we do nothing, then the degradation will continue to impact the productivity and health of both. So that’s how I present it: building resilience and reducing vulnerability.

Morris: How can communities build resilience in order to adapt to climate change?

El-Ashry: I’m glad you mentioned communities, because the tendency is to think about this as a global issue—but the impacts are local. We need to think about the institutions that will deal with these issues on the ground. People need better information. For example, a farmer wants information about the land, wind, and droughts, so that he can adjust. These cycles have happened before, and people have adjusted to them. That’s how people build resilience. As for ecosystems, building resilience means reducing the human impact, which is tremendous. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005 showed that because ecosystems are already degraded, the impacts of climate change are going to be even greater.

Morris: How do you strike a balance between trying to make sure that communities are not as vulnerable to climate change, while ensuring that they’re resilient to its effects now and in the future?

El-Ashry: I think the best way of looking at this is to talk about upstream interventions that would be valuable regardless of the specific impacts of climate change. For example, we have droughts right now. Farmers suffer. However, crop varieties that are resistant to drought will help right now and will also provide a cushion for when droughts become worse in the future. Vulnerability exists, but it’s being reduced. Unless you put forth a serious mitigation effort, that vulnerability remains—and the impacts are there no matter what.

Morris: It seems like there is a distinct connection between adapting to climate change and general development in emerging countries. How do you see that connection?

El-Ashry: There’s no question about the linkage between adaptation and development. In fact, you cannot adapt without a national framework for economic activity and sustainable development. Otherwise, adaptation efforts become marginalized because designing a few projects here or there isn’t sufficient. Adaptation requires a long-term effort that starts with building resilience in communities, so it must be within a country’s development framework. However, if we’re talking about development and poverty alleviation, then you have to look at what poor people really need right now. They need access to energy, because without it they will not have an income. They need clean energy, because they can’t afford oil.

"The tendency is to think about adaptation as a global issue—but the impacts are local. We need to think about the institutions that will deal with these issues on the ground."

Morris: Is it time to start bringing mitigation and adaptation conversations and efforts together, or are we not quite ready for that as an international community?

El-Ashry: Let’s talk about why we aren’t ready for that. Negotiations related to climate change are between developed and developing countries. Developed countries are interested in mitigation. Developing countries are interested in adaptation. Poor countries contribute only 8 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, yet 98 percent of the people who suffer from the effects of climate change live in those countries. Of course, the two are closely linked, because the more we mitigate, the less we have to adapt. However, that’s not the nature of the current political debate.

Morris: Do you think that international negotiations are moving forward, in terms of the pledges by developed countries to have $100 billion available per year by 2020?

El-Ashry: It’s really all talk. Pledges are pledges. Where is the money going to come from? Let’s just be honest about it. Even $10 billion, where would it come from? That’s really what bothers me about the international negotiations and disappoints the people who are being affected.

Morris: Do you think that the UNFCCC processes of the past 20 years are still viable? Or is it time to start moving toward a new model that takes funding challenges into account and begins to focus on helping people adapt to climate change where it’s currently most needed?

El-Ashry: You cannot disregard the UNFCCC process. It’s the only universal approach where all countries are present and have a say. However, experience shows that we need other ways to complement it. There is no reason why small groups— such as the G20, the G8, or the G8 plus five—can’t come up with ideas that can be put forward to the bigger group. When the Framework Convention was being negotiated, there were small groups that developed and shared ideas. However, ultimately, you need to work through the international system, because without that global policy framework, we cannot talk about implementation on a global scale.

Morris: It seems that negotiations have been held up by simple questions of economics: Where does money come from? How does it get distributed? Who needs it the most, and who is going to supply it? Are we ready to have a discussion about the economics of climate change and adaptation projects?

El-Ashry: We are not there yet—let’s back up one step. Where would additional sources of funding come from? There have been proposals for taxing airline tickets for international travel, and it’s not a bad idea. For example, you put a $1 tax on economy tickets, a $20 tax on business-class tickets, and a $40 tax on first-class tickets. That can raise between $8 and $10 billion a year. Another option is taxing maritime fuel, or bunker fuel, the only fuel not currently taxed. A small tax will increase the price of the commodity, but only slightly. If you do it in a way that does not impact the developing countries as severely as the developed countries, it can actually raise another $8 to $10 billion. If you combine both strategies, that’s $16 to $20 billion. These are good ideas, but people can’t really agree on them. The United States is against the airline ticket idea. The Europeans are for it, and they’ve launched a small pilot project raising money not for climate change, but for vaccinations for the poor. We really need to come together as a global community and agree on some of these things. Let’s start small.

Morris: If you were able to prioritize discussions on adaptation over the next two to three years in order to address the concerns of developing countries about the impacts of climate change and those of developed countries about spending and transparency—what would be your priority areas?

El-Ashry: Ten years ago, when I was leading the Global Environmental Facility, the Framework Convention asked us to fund the preparation of National Adaptation Programmes of Action. Fifty of them were completed. Some are good. Some are not as good. My first priority was to provide funding for implementing those plans. In cancun, however, the Framework Convention decided that there should be new national adaptation plans, and those previously prepared weren’t implemented. But, I am still optimistic. If I weren’t optimistic, I wouldn’t have been working on environmental issues for all these years.

Morris: Do you think that extreme weather events are starting to influence the conversations to some degree?

El-Ashry: Not yet. The difficulty is that you cannot really pinpoint any particular event in relation to climate change. Science tells us that with increased temperatures, there is more evaporation and more precipitation, but we can’t yet separate what is a natural cycle from what is a result of global warming. However, it seems that what is being predicted in the climate models is what we are seeing now. This realization has not yet reached decisionmakers and policymakers. I think the reason is very simple: because there is a cost that needs to be paid.