new york
New York City has 500 miles of coastline vulnerable to climate change impacts. Photo by Christopher Czermak on Unsplash

When the cost of climate change adaptation is one-tenth the cost of no action in coastal cities, the case for doubling down on resiliency measures is clear. But according to a new report the world is way behind on climate change adaptation.

“Government officials and business leaders need to radically rethink how they make decisions. We need a revolution in understanding, planning, and finance that makes climate risks visible, incorporates these risks into all decisions, and releases public and private financial flows.”

So said former UN chief Ban Ki-moon (chair), Bill Gates and Kristalina Georgieva (co-chairs) of the Global Commission on Adaptation in their foreword to its new report Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience published today.

They were launching the start of a Year of Action intended to jump-start the necessary transitions for change – “a comprehensive platform for urgent, bold, and equitable” adaptation – with events in more than 10 cities around the world, along with a social media campaign #AdaptOurWorld.

The report calls for greater global leadership to accelerate adaptation. It presents the growing threats from climate change and offers new economic analysis around the benefits of action.

“Adaptation can bring out bold ideas and inspire innovation beyond what people currently think is possible. Most of all, we need political leadership that shakes people out of their collective slumber,” they continued.

What does adaptation look like?

It is different for every city, not just because of its location but because of its wealth.

In Bangladesh it might be a siren warning the population of an incoming typhoon. In Zimbabwe it is the provision of a new variety of maize that is more resistant to drought. In Denmark, engineers are redesigning city streets to make them less prone to flooding.

In Indonesia an investor is using data and maps on water risk to inform his investments. And in Columbia urban planners are stipulating that roofs be painted white to deflect dangerous heat.

The summary report considers early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture crop production, global mangrove protection, and investments in making water resources more resilient. The full report has broader recommendations across seven systems.

Climate change reality

One in four species is facing extinction, about a quarter of all ice-free land is now emitting methane, and absorbing higher temperatures, ocean temperatures and acidity are rising, and climate change is accelerating the loss of natural assets everywhere and is very likely to increase in intensity.

There is a high likelihood of higher temperatures bringing more fires, crop failures, typhoons and flooding. Temperatures above 46°C can cause the human body to quickly collapse.

Adapting now is not just an environmental and moral imperative but in our economic self-interest. The overall rate of return on investments in improved resilience is very high, with benefit-cost ratios ranging from 2:1 to 10:1, and in some cases even higher, the commission finds.

It highlights that “failing to seize just the economic benefits of climate adaptation with high-return investments would undermine trillions of dollars in potential growth and prosperity”.

Over the last two years, natural catastrophes, exacerbated by climate change, have caused a record $225 billion (AU$328 billion) of insured losses.

Failure to act will also increase the prospect of social collapse. In particular, food systems need to be made much more resilient, and less reliant on short-term shortages of particular key crops and products.

Making infrastructure more climate-resilient

While the case for ambitious adaptation is clear, the world is way behind and it’s not happening at nearly the pace and scale required. The frankly frightening risks of not acting need to be widely trumpeted.

An early warning system can save lives and assets worth at least 10 times their cost. Spending $800 million (AU$1165 million) on such systems in developing countries would avoid losses of $3–16 billion (AU$4.37–2.33 billion) per year.

Making infrastructure more climate-resilient can add about 3 per cent to the upfront costs but has benefit/cost ratios of about 4:1. With $60 trillion (AU$87.4 trillion) in projected infrastructure investments between 2020 and 2030, the potential benefits of early adaptation are enormous.

A summary of nature-based solutions that can build resilience taken from the report.

But how to pay for it in a time of strapped finances? A revolution in finance is also needed to attract the funds and resources necessary to accelerate adaptation.

Costs and risks need to be shared between the public and private sectors.

Coastal cities

In coastal cities the cost of adaptation is one-tenth the cost of no action.

In New York City, which has 500 miles of coastline, director of the office of resiliency Jainey Bavishi is helping the city make itself climate change-ready. She says she expects it to have a 30 per cent risk of storm surges by 2050 with some streets subject to daily tidal inundation after that date.

“So the city is spending $20 billion (AU$29 billion) on adaptation to this and extreme heat and intense precipitation,” she says.

For example, it has rebuilt the Rockway boardwalk with 5.5 miles of steel reinforced concrete and is painting rooftops white to reflect extreme heat.

“We’re preparing the city to bounce back from extreme weather events as quickly as possible,” Bavishi says.

In the Netherlands, Mathieu Schouten, a landscape architect for the river port in the town of Nijmegen, says that adaptation there means a completely new approach.

Mathieu Schouten, a landscape architect, by the River Waal

“River flows have become more unpredictable. In the past we tried to keep the river out. Now we have incorporated it into the city.”

A 4.5 kilometre channel has been dug to absorb rising flows on the River Waal and dykes have been moved to make room for the river. “This drains away enormous amounts of water, it means we can guarantee safety as far as the German border,” says Schouten.

A new island will soon have parks and houses on it. “The city has changed because of this, all due to climate change,” he says.

Such solutions to flood risk, which imitate nature by providing somewhere for the water to go happily and create habitats like wetlands and ponds, are highly recommended by the commission.

Conversely, other areas are prone to drought – such as Cape Town two years ago – and need to invest in water efficiency and security.

Already, 14 of the world’s 20 megacities face severe water shortages that threaten economic productivity and quality of life. “Cities need to become ‘water smart’,” urges the report.

The Risk of Catastrophic Events Increases with Temperature

Feeding citizens in a climate-risk world

Global demand for food is projected to increase by 50 per cent but yields may decline by up to 30 per cent by 2050 in the absence of ambitious climate action.

The report is weak in this area. It does not recommend changing the food procurement system, only the way farmers are supported and the type of farming.

According to Roger Hallam, a co-founder of the global Extinction Rebellion movement, the world is already on a path to a 5 degree rise in global temperature within this century, more severe than the IPCC predictions.

He says significant crop failures are likely in the not-too-distant future, which could cause mass starvation in crop-producing areas and, because of the “just-in-time” logistics of supermarket supply chains, could mean social collapse in food importing areas.

More local food procurement is needed, simultaneously encouraging producers and supply chains to diversify so that if extreme weather events cause one type of crop to fail, others are still available.

Public bodies that procure multi-million dollar food contracts such as health and education boards are in an ideal position to leverage such a change if supported by local and national government changes in legislation.

“The commission seeks to ensure that by 2025, all significant new and retrofit infrastructure is climate-resilient,” says the report, “by systematically mainstreaming climate resilience into infrastructure planning, design, operation, and maintenance. It also needs to be more locally led.”

As we move into an increasingly climate changed world, any infrastructure that does not do this is criminally irresponsible, and may be subject to legal challenge – at least in a country where the legal system can support such cases.

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