Adaptation as complicated as cutting emissions – UN disasters envoy

Governments must not see adaptation as ‘politically easy’ way out of tackling climate change, says Margareta Wahlström

Drought leaves dead and dying animals in Kenya (Source: Oxfam/Brendan Cox)

Drought leaves dead and dying animals in Kenya (Source: Oxfam/Brendan Cox)

By Sophie Yeo

Adaptation should not be seen as the “politically easy” option when governments are dealing with climate change, warns a top UN official.

Margareta Wahlström, the UN’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, said that the action required to prepare for the now inevitable impacts of a warmer world need to be “drastic”.

Her view challenges those of many sceptics, who have argued that adaptation should now be at the heart of climate change policy as the cheaper and easier way of tackling the problem. The alternative – a massive overhaul of the world’s energy systems – provides immense challenges economically, politically and socially.

“We need to remove the sense that one choice is politically easier than the other,” Wahlström told RTCC in an interview.

“Both of them are quite complicated for people today, for the societies and strapped governments that feel this involves a lot of money and they really don’t have enough financial resources to make these choices.

“Whereas we know that the choices will be much more expensive if you have to wait 10 or 20 years to make them.”


The UN’s latest blockbuster report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of climate science focused on the impacts of climate change, what the world can do to prepare for them – and what it can’t.

The report weighs heavily on a particular point: climate change will inevitably cause risks across all continents, and these need to be managed. It is a point that Wahlström has long been making herself.

“They’ve clearly said that the factors that drive climate change are on a path that are in some cases irreversible,” she explained. “The triggers that have been put in motion already require that we manage risk for a long time.”

She added that “absolutely too little” had been invested so far in adaptation, as governments have focused on what can be done to prevent climate change.

Her observation is borne up by the figures. According to analysis by the World Resources Institute, of the US$ 35billion raised in climate finance by rich countries, only 17% was ringfenced towards adaptation projects. Meanwhile, the pot of money called the Adaptation Fund has been forced to put projects on hold while it scrambles to raise adequate donations year on year.

Source: World Resources Institute

Source: World Resources Institute

This has left countries vulnerable to the impacts that climate change will have, and the IPCC report shows that these are many. Flooding, food insecurity and water scarcity are some of the issues that it says will affect the poorest most over coming decades as the world warms up.


There are many sceptics who would welcome a shift in policy away from mitigation towards adaptation.

Adaptation is the better approach, wrote Conservative peer Matt Ridley in the Spectator last week, as it yields quick results that enable people to cope with “anything the weather might throw at you”. Mitigation, on the other hand, requires every country make deep cuts to their emissions in order to keep global warming to safe levels.

But Wahlström emphasised that it was wrong to use adaptation as an “excuse” – partly because the world still has a responsibility to mitigate, and partly because the effort required to adapt to climate change is substantial in itself, requiring a much more precise understanding than we have today.

“Even adaptation today means some really tough choices for people,” she said. “We should not shift to adaptation as a way of giving up on our future, but just trying to make it a little bit better. That’s no solution. We need to be very drastic.”

The one sense in which adaptation is politically easier is that it deals with timeframes that people now can understand, she says. Efforts so far have tackled the problem of climate change through mitigation “as if that timeframe that was understandable for human beings,” she says. “I think it’s clear that it’s not.”

Adaptation reinforces that climate change is an issue that is already affecting people, and creates solutions that can tackle it today, she says. Efforts to cut the use of fossil fuels, on the other hand, have yet to pay dividends – despite two decades of international negotiations, emissions continue to rise.

“We need to stop talking about it as something that’s only concerning the future. Climate change is today already.”

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