|This article originally appeared in
|13 December, 2005
|The 'war on climate change’
With a record year of severe weather in terms of lives lost and property
damaged, weather-monitoring groups, environmentalists, scientists, and
politicians are increasingly discussing whether the focus on confronting
climate change should be mitigation or adaptation.
By Eric J. Lyman in Montreal for ISN Security Watch
Hurricanes, drought, and flooding have made this year the most severe year on record
in terms of extreme weather, according to several organizations presenting information
at recent climate change talks in Canada. And all indications are that the trend is
unlikely to change for the better.
Weather monitoring groups - including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO),
the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and leading insurance companies -
presented information during climate talks in Montreal earlier this month illustrating the
different ways in which the year 2005 stood alone in terms of severe weather.
The data was enough to spark debate among delegates at the UN-sponsored climate
change talks here that perhaps a larger part of international efforts on climate change
should focus on adapting to changes in the world’s climate rather than trying to
reverse or slow changes that may already be irreversible.
“The two areas [adaptation and mitigation] are not equally weighted, but perhaps they
should be,” British Environment Minister Margaret Beckett, who also headed the EU
delegation in Montreal, told reporters during a briefing.
There is still debate among scientists about whether the severe weather could be
directly attributed to a changing climate and to human activity. But the camp that does
see a connection is growing quickly - both in terms of size and of conviction.
“What we know is that a warming climate makes weather phenomena more extreme,
and we know that human activity is a major factor is causing the weather to warm
over the decades since the Industrial Revolution,” Bruno Serin, a Belgian meteorologist
and consultant working with the EU on climate change issues, told ISN Security Watch.
“The connection is not a hard one to make.”
Filberto Perez de la Vega, an advisor with the Department of Science at Argentina’s
Environment Ministry, was more direct.
“I used to be skeptical about the connection between human activity and the weather,
but not any more,” he told ISN Security Watch. “The evidence just can’t be denied, and
every month there is more of it.”
Generally speaking, most of the evidence is based on proof that human activities
producing greenhouse gasses, the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the
average global temperature, and the instance of severe weather around the globe all
seem to be on the rise, more or less to equal degrees.
The combination of factors is resulting in many previously unseen situations. The WMO
reported that 2005 saw the highest incidence of rainfall anywhere, 944 millimeters in a
24-hour period in Mumbai, India; the first-ever hurricane to reach the European
mainland, when Vince hit Spain in October; and the strongest hurricane on record in
Wilma, a North Atlantic hurricane, also in October.
There were so many tropical storms this year that the US National Hurricane Center
exhausted its list of 21 alphabetically ordered names for the first time, switching to the
list of Greek letters - resulting in the first Tropical Storm Alpha.
The UNEP estimated that severe weather cost a combined US$200 billion in 2005 - the
highest figure on record, more than a third higher than the US$145 billion recorded in
1998. And insurance giant Munich Re Foundation estimated that worldwide weather-
related claims as of 1 December totaled US$70 billion, more than the record US$45
billion, also from 1998.
“There is a powerful indication from these figures that we are moving from predictions
of the likely impacts of climate change to proof that it is already fully under way,”
Munich Re CEO Thomas Loster said in a briefing at the climate change talks. “Above all,
these are humanitarian tragedies that show us that, as a result of human impacts on
the climate, we are making people everywhere more vulnerable to weather-related
Despite the higher-than-usual number of tropical storms in 2005, most scientists say
that a changing climate is more likely to yield more intense storms but not necessarily a
larger number of them. But that still does not change the fact that the cost of severe
weather - both in terms of casualties and property damage - is likely to rise for the
That is the trend behind the notion that adaptation is becoming increasingly important.
From mitigation to adaptation
The Kyoto Protocol is the main framework for confronting climate change. Since the
Kyoto document was written in 1997, most of efforts to confront climate change have
focused on mitigation rather than adaptation.
The Kyoto text does mention adaptation. Article 10 calls on countries to “formulate,
implement, publish, and regularly update national […] measures to facilitate adequate
adaptation to climate change”. But the heart of the document calls on countries to
reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a way to mitigate the effect of climate change.
That emphasis, however, is starting to change.
Delegates at the 28 November-9 December talks in Montreal told ISN Security Watch
that the topic of adaptation repeatedly came up in plenary statements and negotiations,
and several proposals set to be addressed at mid-2006 meetings in Germany.
“This is a big worry for poorer countries that lack the technology to protect
themselves,” John Mooteb, the deputy assistant secretary for the Department of
Economic Affairs for the Federated States of Micronesia, told ISN Security Watch. “It
looks a lot like a problem created mostly by wealthy countries that most has an impact
on poor countries.”
Alexander Bedritsky, the head of the Russian delegation in Montreal and the president
of the WMO, agreed.
“This is an issue that has not been given enough importance in the past,” Bedritsky, a
long-time advocate of adaptation strategies, told ISN Security Watch. “Even if every
country reached its Kyoto target this afternoon, we would not avoid much of the
severe weather in store for the future.”
The biggest problem for adaptation programs is funding. The UN process only funds
them through projects in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) - an initiative that
gives wealthy countries credits for reducing emissions when they invest in clean
energy projects in developing countries. But that initiative has been criticized because it
amounts to a tax on the poor countries where CDM projects are located and because
the amount of funding is so low.
“We really need a way to raise greater sums for adaptation, and one that doesn’t raise
them directly from the developing countries that need the help the most,” Pat Finnegan,
director of the Irish environmental group Grian, told ISN Security Watch.
Some delegates and observers are against directing significant resources toward
adaptation because that would take the focus off of mitigation efforts. Still others favor
a focus that is almost exclusively on adaptation, reasoning that climate change is
impossible to stop and so the best strategy is learning how to live with it.
But the most typical view is to continue focusing on mitigation efforts while expanding
initiatives related to adaptation.
“There are two kinds of adaptation required: there’s the response to emergencies like
the [Indian Ocean] Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina [in New Orleans], and then there are
the long-term trends in weather patterns that effect agriculture, shipping, or industry,”
Jonathan Pershing, the director of the Climate, Energy, and Pollution Program at the
World Resources Institute, told ISN Security Watch. “In both cases, strategies are
under-funded and under-emphasized.”
Pershing pointed out that the first type required a more vibrant and better-funded
infrastructure, but that the second type of adaptation was harder to develop.
“Countries, companies, and individuals that fund disaster relief suffer from a kind of
‘donor fatigue’ in which each disaster attracts fewer resources than the one before,”
“Infrastructure gets worn down and responsiveness suffers. But those problems are
easier to solve than helping an agricultural area that is slowly becoming unviable, or a
shipping lane that is more and more unnavigable [sic] due to weather or currents.”
Eric J. Lyman is a senior ISN Security Watch correspondent.