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

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.  

Some early adaptation projects run by a Bolivian NGO, Agua Sustentable, are helping the communities to plan for a future with less water. The projects include improvements to the efficiency of irrigation systems so that available water stretches further, and the development of new water storage capacity to help harvest rainfall and reduce dependency on the glacial melt water.

While Hugo is grateful for the help he knows that these initiatives will have to be an order of magnitude larger if they are to offer a viable response to the loss of the glaciers. “The projects help us a lot. They are useful projects,” he tells me, “but we need bigger ones. Reservoirs that hold the water- a big reservoir. That is why we hope for help.” But, bigger projects will mean finding more resources than Agua Sustentable currently has.   

The extent of Bolivia’s adaptation needs becomes apparent when you consider that this valley represents just five of at least 200 communities which rely directly on Illimani’s glaciers alone, not to mention the thousands of other communities in similar situations across the country. If you then include the countless other villages and towns which do not rely on glaciers but are vulnerable to increases in floods and droughts (that climate change is likely to bring), then the adaptation task looks formidable. In these circumstances adaptation can take many forms, from disaster-response planning, to the introduction of drought resistant crops, or more conventional poverty-reduction and health projects which help reduce levels of vulnerability. As Adriana Soto, who works for Agua Sustentable, puts it: “There are many distinct realities [across Bolivia]. In the end everyone is exposed to the changes in climatic conditions.” With this situation replicated around the world the scale of necessary adaptation investment is hard to fathom.  

Everyone I speak with says that the municipal authority here in La Paz, and the national government in general, should be doing more to help prepare for climate change. But it is difficult to see how Bolivia will be able to afford such levels of investment without significant international support. Adriana explains that, “Bolivia needs to have a very clear adaptation policy which would generate resources. But I do not know if they would be enough for everything which needs to be done, because each reality is different and some measures will be very expensive.”

This suggests that it is essential some of the $100bn per year by 2020 pledged by developed countries finds its way to Bolivia. However, not everyone is convinced that the rise of the adaptation agenda in international negotiations offers much reason for optimism.

Sceptical voices

Back in La Paz I meet with Martin Vilela from the Bolivian Climate Change Platform. He has been at the last three COPs and could talk all day about the intricacies and mysterious workings of international negotiations. He says that the warming which is now inevitable means that “adaptation is a reality” and that developed countries must “pay for their historic climate debt.” However, he cautions against placing too much hope on progress with adaptation finance.

Martin is sceptical about how much international finance will really be provided by developed countries. He points out that the pledge of $100 billion by 2020 is in reality highly vague, open to a lot of interpretation, and offers little guarantee that significant adaptation finance will be delivered. Many donors have simply relabelled pre-existing development aid as adaptation finance, making it easier to meet their targets. Adaptation finance may even fall in the coming years with developed countries citing the economic crisis as a reason for them not paying more. While headline grabbing, Martin says that the pledges of adaptation finance have in reality been “empty promises”.

Martin also highlights the burdensome conditions, which are likely to accompany any adaptation finance that is offered. “They don’t want to give the money and the little money that there will be is going to have too many conditions.” He suspects donors will demand strict requirements which Bolivia may struggle to meet, or which will heavily restrict how Bolivia can use the funds. He also fears donors could use the promise of funds to meddle with national policies. Aid conditionality is a sensitive topic in Bolivia, a country that has a long and bitter history of interference by outside actors, including World Bank-backed neoliberal reforms which were fiercely resisted across the country. It is perhaps not surprising that many Bolivians are far from enthusiastic about the prospect of becoming more reliant on foreign donors. 

But Martin’s biggest reservation is that unless rapid cuts in emissions are achieved soon it will simply be impossible to adapt to the scale and pace of the resulting impacts. “With these scenarios (of four degrees warming or more) there isn’t going to be any adaptation infrastructure that will be capable of limiting the impacts of climate change, as the climate’s variability - the imbalances, the rains, the droughts - is going to be so severe that it will be very difficult to plan adaptation actions against these scenarios. Such actions are going to have their limitations and be insufficient,” he says.

Martin is concerned that “the whole issue of climate change is becoming limited to a focus on adaptation, which means they are not tackling the structural causes of climate change.”  For him and many other civil society groups in Bolivia, the increasing focus on adaptation internationally misses the point and could even be a dangerous distraction by easing the pressure on developed countries and further delaying mitigation action. Ely Peredo of Fundación Solón is another prominent Bolivian campaigner. “I totally agree that the developed countries have to pay for their responsibility,” she explains, “but it is fundamental that we begin to change the development paradigm. It is very difficult to see how by only obtaining funds for adaptation we are going to resolve the problem. Even if we get funds for adaptation the problem is going to continue if we do not change really radically the way we currently live and coexist together.”  

The Bolivian government’s negotiating position has also focussed primarily on the need for developed countries to make rapid emissions cuts. You are unlikely to find the Bolivian delegation in Doha enthusiastically welcoming promises of adaptation finance. Like the countries vulnerable to sea level rise that make up the Alliance of Small Island States, it seems that Bolivia risks losing far more from climate change than it has to gain from receiving adaptation support.

There is no doubt that international finance for adaptation will be important in helping vulnerable communities like those living around Illimani cope with climate change. But many in Bolivia hope adaptation is not seen as an alternative to urgent emission reductions. Even if funding for adaptation materializes (which many doubt), it will not be able to compensate for the damages caused by the worst global warming scenarios, which we are currently heading towards. Some things are simply irreplaceable. 


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