The climate threat multiplier

Lhotse glacier, Chukung village to the far left. Photo: ALTON C BYERS

Most of the recent talk within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process and elsewhere has focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the impact of climate change.

Mitigation was the buzzword, and any mention of adaptation was avoided because for some it meant accepting defeat. But today, driven largely by the concerns of developing countries, which bear the brunt of the climate emergency, adaptation is the key issue. But since adapting to climate change is so closely linked with issues of power, governance and politics, it is not well understood. Successfully adapting to climate change is often based on how individuals, households and communities switch and improve livelihoods.

Given Nepal’s geographical, climate and ecosystem diversity from plains to mountains, the question is: what do people actually adapt to? Is it rising temperatures and heat, erratic rains, droughts, floods, forest fires or increased rates of diseases?

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Families in high mountain valleys may not have to worry about floods, but are affected when roads are blocked, severing access to markets. Those in the mid-mountains may be badly impacted by landslides, drying springs, or declining agriculture production due to droughts.

An adaptation strategy that works in an isolated mountain settlement will not work in Kathmandu. Though climate change is a global problem, its impacts are very local and different. National-level attempts to adapt will thus be unsuccessful, yet global conversations and the resultant aid flows continue to ignore sub-national differences.

In 2001, the UNFCCC established a program for least developed countries that included financial and technical support to prepare National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPA) to meet ‘immediate and urgent’ adaptation needs. Today the conversation has moved to National Adaptation Plans (NAP) that focus on integrating climate risks into development planning and implementation.

Nepal was late in preparing its NAPA, which turned out to be a temporary blessing in disguise. Using additional donor funding, the Ministry of Science Technology and Environment prepared a NAPA 'Plus' in 2009, which included a more consultative process to capture local nuances. In 2011, Nepal formulated a LAPA framework and also promulgated a climate policy stipulating that 80% of resources earmarked for the climate crisis would be allocated to local levels.

Donor support was available and the country implemented LAPA programs in a few selected regions. But we still don’t know if the resources were really spent in rural areas, or if they made any difference.

There are three major challenges for successful adaptation to climate impacts. First is attribution: a localised weather event cannot be directly linked to climate change. Second relates to how people and institutions respond to new climate shocks, usually by local people meeting local needs.

Finally, individual adaptation strategies are most successful and enduring when people have access to drinking water, clean energy, information, finances and alternative sources of income, as well as the right to organise, express their voices and access political outlets.

Given the rapid spread of the climate emergency, it is clear that existing project-based efforts cannot add up at scale. Our current understanding of adaptation offers very little by way of solutions for the scale of transformative shifts necessary now and into the future for Nepal and elsewhere. Based on the polluter pays principle, the developed world should indeed bear the cost of adaptation in developing countries to make up for historical emissions. But when our springs dry up, having more money may not be of much help.

Even without climate change, Nepal faced challenges managing disasters and development. The climate emergency is a threat multiplier that will seriously strain our socio-economic, political and ecological futures.

Ajaya Dixit is Executive Director of Kathmandu based ISET-Nepal. His monthly column Climate for Change deals with the impact of global warming in Nepal.

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