"Natural ecosystems are humanity's first line of defence against floods, droughts, heatwaves, hurricanes, and the other mounting impacts of climate change." This idea permeates a report published last month by the Global Commission on Adaptation under the title Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience.
The commission is headed by Ban ki-Moon, a former secretary-general of the United Nations; Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank; and Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Their report echoes the (disputed) claim that "climate change" is increasing the number and ferocity of "potentially deadly weather events". But it then points out that humans "have adapted to climate variability for thousands of years" and that "humanity has always lived under the looming threat of nature's fury".
Looking ahead to the "climate adaptation summit" to be held in the Netherlands in October next year, the report identifies five "areas" on which $1.8 trillion should be spent between 2020 and 2030. This amount is less than 1% of projected global investment over that period.
The five areas are early warning systems (against, for example, floods), "climate-resilient infrastructure" (such as the Thames Barrier in London), improved dryland crop production, global mangrove protection, and making water resources more resilient.
Many climate activists point to mounting losses from floods or hurricanes and blame these on "climate change". The report has a different perspective. In their rush to grow, it says, many cities have "relentlessly stripped away or built over floodplains, forests, and wetlands that could have absorbed stormwater or offered respite and precious water during heat waves and droughts". More and more people are therefore in harm's way all over the world. More than 880 million live in informal settlements "where opportunities are few and access to basic services like electricity, basic healthcare, sanitation, education, and clean water is scarce to non-existent".
Disaster risk management includes moving people away from areas vulnerable to flooding. Land use planning and zoning regulation can direct development away from such areas. "Restoring mangrove forests" can "offer protection from rising seas and storm surges". Docks and wharfs can be raised to stay above rising seas. Cities can improve stormwater management. Green roofs and greater tree cover can cool cities and reduce the use of energy. Drip irrigation can be used to reduce water wastage in farming. Intense wildfires can be combated by better forest management. And so on.
The report argues that "climate-proofing existing infrastructure and building new infrastructure that is more climate resilient make sound economic sense – on average, the benefits outweigh costs by four to one. Investments in infrastructure need to directly build resilience, whether for stormwater drainage in cities or protecting coastal communities against sea-level rise".
Little of this is new. Many authorities around the world have long since taken steps to reduce the risk arising from floods or droughts and other natural phenomena. Several atoll nations, among them the Maldives, are protecting their coastal areas by planting mangroves, restoring wetlands, and improving water systems.
The significance of the Adapt Now report is that its main focus is on practical proposals to deal with these phenomena rather than simply on joining the global crusade against carbon dioxide.
It also contains a timely reminder that almost a billion people "lack the lifeblood of the modern global economy – electricity". This alone is a powerful argument against policies that would inflict higher energy prices on poor countries in the name of combating carbon emissions. That 880 million people live in dreadful circumstances in shack settlements is likewise a powerful argument against policies that would slow down economic growth and so reduce the pace at which poor people can escape their plight.
The report says that "despite the powerful case of working with nature to reduce climate risk, the world has barely begun to realise this potential". It does not delve into the reasons, but one of them might be that other international organisations, notably the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have for years concentrated their energies on campaigning against carbon dioxide. As this column pointed out last week, several hundred of the world's news outlets have pledged themselves to promote this campaign.
Moreover, if the apocalypse is nigh, there does not seem to be much point in spending money on adaptation strategies such as those proposed in Adapt Now and elsewhere. Implementation of such strategies requires research, planning, budgeting, setting priorities, and enlisting public support.
That is unlikely to happen on the scale required when so many of the world's politicians (with the exceptions of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump) and so many chunks of its media defer to a Swedish teenager who acts as the mouthpiece of the IPCC and others in their drive to make us all "panic".
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.