UN climate science report will highlight ‘limits to adaptation’

NEWS: Focus on limits to adaptation within the new IPCC report could sharpen focus on loss and damage within UN talks

Source: CARE International/Peter Caton

Source: CARE International/Peter Caton

By Sophie Yeo

Humans will struggle to adapt to dangerous levels of climate change indefinitely, a UN science report is expected to announce next week.

It will warn that there are barriers to man’s ability to adapt to projected floods, droughts and other extreme weather events, which means that the world will inevitably endure a certain amount of pain within the next century.

The two volume report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is set to be released on March 31 in Yokohama, Japan.

“The question of defining whether there are limits and what those limits might be is a new thing that we’ve uncovered in the IPCC, and I think it’s really interesting,” Frans Berkhout, lead author on the chapter on constraints to adaptation, told RTCC.

“We can’t adapt our way out of this problem.”

Loss and damage

The findings will be particularly relevant to countries that are pushing for the controversial issue of ‘loss and damage’ to be recognised in a UN treaty to stop climate change, due to be signed off in Paris in 2015.

‘Loss and damage’ means that countries accept that damage as a result of climate change is inevitable, and that they must prepare themselves accordingly.

This could take place in the form of research, insurance, or compensation payments from the rich countries historically responsible for climate change to those now suffering its consequences.

But the notion that rich countries like the US should take the blame for climate change and pay out accordingly means that the issue is one of the most controversial at the UN climate negotiations.

The fiercely political debate surrounding the issue means that the policy neutral IPCC is likely to steer clear of the phrase ‘loss and damage’ itself, but it’s there in all but name, says Saleemul Huq, an expert on the topic at the IIED, and a lead author on the IPCC report.

“Chapter 16 is about the limits and barriers to adaptation. That’s effectively what happens when we fail to sufficiently adapt,” he told RTCC. “They may not use the words loss and damage, but substantively it’s there.”


Berkhout agreed that the IPCC’s focus on the limits of adaptation was a “different way of framing” the debate over loss and damage.

But he doubted whether it would help developing countries to make their case within the “grand bargain” of the UN negotiations in the long run, where political considerations often take precedence over the science.

“Defining those vulnerable reasons and where there are limits in their capacity to adapt, then there might well be an international responsibility to help those particularly vulnerable victims,” he said.

“That’s part of the loss and damage debate, but I think in the end it’s a debate about responsibility and assistance, which is a political trade off.”


In some ways, the report comes too late. During the UN’s November meeting, parties agreed to set up a ‘Warsaw mechanism on loss and damage’, which set the stage for countries to begin new research and fresh dialogue on the issue.

What it didn’t overcome is the final taboo: should rich countries take the blame for climate change, and will they have to compensate?

For many developed countries, for whom such an arrangement could be financially disastrous, it is not a topic up for discussion.

A recent study identified the UK, USA, Canada, Russia and Germany as the five countries most responsible for global warming, if global carbon dioxide emissions are allocated using per capita calculations.

But if scientists are able to precisely attribute the level of damage caused by each country, then their hands may be forced, said Huq.

“Until you have attribution, you can’t unlock that door of liability and compensation. The fifth assessment doesn’t have it. Maybe the sixth will.”

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