ADAPTATION: State Department outlines climate needs for poor countries (09/05/2008)
Lisa Friedman, ClimateWire reporter
A new Bush administration report acknowledges that poor countries will need billions of dollars in assistance to help cope with the impacts of climate change.
In a report to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), officials at the State Department and other agencies said international adaptation is "emerging as a more prominent issue." Industrialized countries, including the United States, they said, are helping to ensure that developing nations have the tools they need to deal with problems like food scarcity and a rise in coastal flooding.
"The ultimate goal of adaptation is to develop resilient societies and economies that have the knowledge and capacity to address both the challenges and the opportunities presented by changing climatic conditions," federal officials wrote. "In this sense, adaptation is of a piece with broader development efforts."
Congressional aides and international development leaders praised the State Department for recognizing a serious global threat. But many also slammed the report, calling it a hasty piece of work that underestimates the enormous job of preparing poor countries to face the consequences of a climate crisis they had little hand in creating.
"To the extent they've begun to engage, I think that's a good thing," David Waskow, climate change program director for Oxfam America, said of the State Department. But, he said, "They underplayed the scale of the need."
Even if countries drastically reduce emissions immediately, scientists say changes already locked into the system mean most nations will be affected by climate change. Developing countries -- many already suffering from extreme poverty and heavily dependent on agriculture -- will bear the brunt of sea level rises and changing weather patterns.
International agencies, led by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, have widely recognized that wealthy nations with long histories of heavy industrial emissions are responsible for the climatic damages poor countries now face, and should take the lead in addressing the problems. Adaptation, or helping countries cope, is central to international climate negotiations.
Still not a priority, Democrats and climate activists charge
Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees State Department funding, last year called on the agency to join with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the adaptation needs of developing countries and lay out the measures America is taking to help them.
"Senator Leahy believes climate change is one of the most challenging and potentially serious problems facing the world," said Tim Rieser, Democratic clerk to the subcommittee. The senator called for the study, Rieser said, "to determine what the administration is doing about it."
He described the 40-page report as a broad-brush overview that doesn't go far enough. The good news, he said: "They're no longer talking about how [climate change] is a hoax."
"At least they're acknowledging that it is a serious problem that requires global cooperation," Rieser said. But, he added, "It doesn't really tell us much that we didn't already know. If anything, it reaffirmed what we suspected -- it's not a priority. There's no strategy in place, and there's minimal funding. The report indicates this is barely on their radar screen."
Melanie Nakagawa, international program attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, also called the report "not very thorough" and was one of several who noted that the report includes large parts of a USAID study published last year.
"They do a scant review of existing literature," she said. "Sadly, it looks like they gave this important issue not the due time it deserves."
Legislation requiring the study was signed into law in December, but according to a Federal Register notice, the State Department convened the interagency delegation to create the report on Aug. 21.
A yearlong State Department focus
But a State Department spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency has been focused on international adaptation for more than a year. The report, she said, built directly on work the agency has been doing to lead an interagency effort for the National Security Council principals committee. Representatives from 16 agencies and White House offices helped prepare the report, she said.
"The issue of adaptation is one of the core issues being addressed through the UNFCCC," the spokeswoman said. "Clearly, the State Department is engaged fully on that."
The agency noted that helping developing countries adapt to climate change could cost from $10 billion to $50 billion, citing Oxfam numbers. It also stressed that industrialized countries should not shoulder the financial burden.
"The scale of the potential cost suggests that adaptation efforts should leverage funds dedicated to development assistance, and that the donor community alone cannot take responsibility for adaptation in the developing world," the authors wrote.
"The role of the donors should be to provide tools, information and assistance to developing countries so they can entrain the resources -- human and financial -- of the private sector as well as donors to build resilient futures."
Nakagawa said that as negotiators work toward a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement, international adaptation needs to see more attention.
"This report merely scratches the surface to outline what is currently needed and will be needed to address the adaptation needs of developing countries," she said.