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We Have to Be on Guard About False Solutions for Climate Change

What role does adaptation have to play in countries vulnerable to climate change impacts, and does the recent international focus on adaptation offer a real cause for optimism?

Photo Credit: Ben Castle


This article was published in partnership with  GlobalPossibilities.org.

As the world's governments gather yet once more for a global climate summit, the prospects for the future look more ominous than ever. Regardless of the outcome of this year’s COP 18 climate change negotiations in Doha, many now fear it is too late to prevent global temperature rise exceeding 2°C this century - which has long been considered the point beyond which impacts become far more serious. Sir Bob Watson, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist, said last year that ‘‘the idea of a 2°C target is largely out of the window.’’ The current trajectory of global emissions puts us in line for a stunning four degree, or even six degree increase this century.

This is the alarming backdrop to the rise of adaptation as a theme of international climate change negotiations. A fringe issue just a few years ago, adaptation is now center stage of the discussions. At the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, developed countries pledged to raise US $ 100 billion per year by 2020 in climate finance for developing countries – with a significant proportion of this to be earmarked for adaptation. This was considered by many to be one of the few positives from the conference and a sign that the COPs were perhaps finally starting to yield some tangible results for developing countries.

But what role does adaptation have to play in countries vulnerable to climate change impacts, and does the recent international focus on adaptation offer a real cause for optimism? The mountains of Bolivia, 8,000 miles from Doha and a place where climate change is already apparent, offer a good spot to begin to explore these issues.

Adaptation in Bolivia

At nearly 6,500 meters the spectacular Illimani is Bolivia’s second highest mountain. The steep valley of Sajhuaya on Illimani’s southern slopes is home to five farming communities, each surrounded by a patchwork of terraced fields that have been cut into the mountainside.  

The stone walls and mature trees give the place a tranquil and timeless quality. However significant changes are underway, as local people explain. In recent years they have had to contend with the arrival of a number of new pests and diseases and more frequent hail storms which destroy young crops. Climate change is already a reality for these communities.

Most worrying is the rapid melting of Illimani’s glaciers, which for five months of the year are the communities’ principle water source. A single river brings the water cascading down from the glaciers above before it is distributed throughout the valley via a system of irrigation channels and ditches. Señora Berta Huarachi Mamani from the Cellubollu community is worried about the future. “Lots of things are happening here,” she tells me. “But our biggest worry is Illimani as we live from that. Illimani is everything. Little by little it is melting away.” It is sobering to think that these changes are already noticeable with only 0.8°C of warming since pre-industrial times.

With everyone here reliant on the produce that they grow to eat and sell at market, the potential loss of the glaciers poses nothing less than an existential threat to their way of life.  Hugo Quispe Gutiérrez, the leader of the La Granja community, believes that people will be forced to abandon their homes and move to the cities of La Paz and El Alto. “We are not going to continue like this without water. There won’t be anything. The people will go to the city - they will migrate, because there won’t be anything to work with. With what are we going to survive?” he asks. It is clear that for these communities the stakes could not be any greater.  

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