Q&A: Funding for climate adaptation is 'the lie we keep living' — Adil Najam

Adil Najam, dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / CC BY-NC-SA

LONDON — “Take a map and look at these local dots,” Adil Najam told Devex. “I think we’re in the midst of a heat and water epidemic.”

Born in Pakistan, with 30 years of experience in development and environmental issues, including on the United Nations Committee for Development, Najam is a vocal advocate of putting more resources into development in order to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

“Whether it is Los Angeles, Cape Town, New Delhi, [or] Karachi,” he continued “I think that's the new face of the global crisis, which is the sum of many local crises. So global climate change very quickly becomes local climate change. And when it becomes local climate change, it requires a different response, [and] different resources.”

Najam, who serves as dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and was a co-author on the third and fourth assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, believes that the world’s failure to mitigate has brought us to “the age of adaptation.” This means that resources are stretched in every direction, he said, and global adaptation funding mechanisms are not the answer.

Najam spoke to Devex about the changing face of climate adaptation efforts, and why they must be seen as an investment. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Global climate agreements are focused on mitigation. Where do we stand now on financing for adaptation — do you see any promising moves?

No promising moves. And I haven't seen any promising moves for 30 years. I think this is one of those lies that we [the climate community] keep living — we keep creating funds that are never distributed. It's the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. Because we want so desperately to believe something will happen. And yet each time the story is the same: The fund gets created, it doesn't get filled, it doesn't get distributed.

Climate change will be paid for by the poor. Not just the poorest countries, but the poorest people.

— Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University

Now, as [someone from a] developing country, frankly I don't lose sleep over this. Because I've learned my lesson now — I do not have any expectations of anything major happening, either on mitigation or adaptation.

Adaptation is very, very clear — I've been saying this now for more than a decade and I certainly believe this: Climate change will be paid for by the poor. Not just the poorest countries, but the poorest people. There is no getting out of this.

There isn't enough money, not only in the climate world, but in the whole aid world, to deal with the type of impacts we are looking at. Even within poor countries, the government will do one level of adaptation but the actual adaptation, the actual cost of adaptation, will be [paid for by] a sheep farmer in Bangladesh who will lose his livelihood, move to the city, start doing something else. A farmer who will no longer be able to subsist — that will be the cost of adaptation.

Are you seeing any signs of hope in what the farmer is doing, what people are doing on the ground to deal with the impacts?

Yes. I don't want to sound hopeless. The good news is that in many developing countries, and even in nondeveloping countries, a lot of adaptation action can have fairly high collateral benefits. It's actually the exact same story of low-hanging fruit that I recall people talking about in mitigation about 15 years ago. When the [energy efficient] light bulbs came, remember how we used to say “OK, even if there isn't climate change, this will save you more energy and will pay for itself?” In adaptation, too, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit.

“Adaptation dollars are about the best dollars you can spend.”

How do you adapt? You adapt with better irrigation methods. If we do that, even without climate change, the benefits will outweigh the costs. Another example, better insulation on windows: I'm sitting in a room with double or triple glazed windows and we manage our energy budget a lot through conservation and insulation. All across the developing world, that is not the case. I think one of the great revolutions happening — and it can be accelerated for adaptation — is in building infrastructure. You see this when you go to Singapore and you see vertical forests on buildings.

If you make a list of things that have to be done for adaptation, most of those things are not only good development practice, they are also good climate practice. So the good news here is that if we could, for a moment, put attention — serious attention — on adaptation, what we will find is that adaptation dollars are about the best dollars you can spend. Not only do you reduce the likelihood of disaster, you increase the prospect of development. And you better prepare for climate change. And in many cases you have additional mitigation benefits.

There is this sense that adaptation is what you do with the poor, [that] it has to be a dole out. That is actually not true. Adaptation has to be an investment.

Can you give me one example of that?

My favorite: Windows. If I'm the house owner, I save on my electricity bill. If you are the climate [expert], you are happy that less energy is spent. If I'm the national policymaker, I solve my energy crisis. What’s not to like? If you're the private sector, there's a whole new market — a whole new market of a city of 30 million, in [the case of] Karachi alone, where the number of insulated windows will be in the tens of thousands.

This is what my gut instinct is: The dollar value of adaptation investment is going to rival or beat the dollar value of mitigation investment. And mitigation investment is huge. I think it is going to beat it out of the ballpark; just because it impacts so many people.

So, there is money to be made. But I think the real payoff is not just in the investment opportunity, it is also in the development opportunity — because that's the one that keeps on paying.

About the author

  • Anita Makri

    Anita Makri is a freelance writer, editor and producer with over 15 years' cross-sector experience in global development, health and the environment, specialising in science and policy. She is based in London and has reported from Africa, Latin America and South Asia. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Nature, Science, The Lancet, and SciDev.Net, among others.