Climate change adaptation: what is at stake in COP21 and beyond?

Interview with Christophe Buffet.

Climate change adaptation: what is at stake in COP21 and beyond?

Interview with Christophe Buffet

Photo of the Interviewee
Christophe Buffet
DG Research & Innovation: Reflective Societies has asked coordinators from FP7 funded social science and humanities projects to answer a series of questions on climate change leading up to COP21 in Paris on 30th of November, 2015. COP21 will, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement with 196 states with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.

Christophe Buffet is a researcher and consultant in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Under the direction of Amy Dahan at the Centre Alexandre Koyré (EHESS/CNRS) in Paris, his PhD thesis dealt with the construction, framing and actors of adaptation from the COP meetings to vulnerable populations in Bangladesh. He studies adaptation and official development assistance, the interface between climate sciences and policies, and community-based adaptation.


How did the adaptation theme appear on the agenda of the COP?

It is a rather new theme! In the Climate Convention (UNFCCC), whose main objective is the stabilisation of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, the adaptation theme first met multiple resistances during the 90s. “Reductionists” considered adaptation a risk which could distract the attention from the essential issue, i.e. the reduction of emissions. “Adaptationists” first thought that the earth system and societies always demonstrated adaptation capacities, and therefore that no particular measures had to be taken. Finally, a “realist” perspective emerged at the beginning of the 2000s, based on IPCC reports, and showed that adaptation would become a necessity. Since the IPCC fourth report in 2007, it has been accepted that reduction and adaptation are two faces of the same coin: the motto is now to avoid the unmanageable and to manage the unavoidable.

In addition to these conceptual debates, adaptation has faced political oppositions. IPCC reports showed that the countries that are the less responsible of climate change are the most affected. This led to the notion of “climate justice”, supported by G77+China, the Least Developed Countries and NGOs. However, developed countries feared that a “polluter pays” principle might open claims for compensations for past polluting practices, representing a bottomless pit as regards funds. Fierce negotiations along the different COP led to a “checkbook diplomacy”, in which limited reduction commitments from the largest CO2 emitters are accepted by developing countries in exchange of adaptation support not correlated to impact costs, and often placed under the aegis of “solidarity” by Western countries.

So, what is really at stake now in COP21, especially regarding “climate finance”?

An important part of the negotiations is related to a funding mechanism for the Green Fund, so that it can contribute by 2020 to the amount of 100 billions of dollars already promised in Copenhagen COP by the heads of state of developed countries. A recent study by the OECD estimates that the global amount of climate finance reached 62 billion in 2014, but with more than three-quarters dealing with mitigation.

The aim now is to define a mechanism to support the adaptation of the most vulnerable countries with financial flows that are predictable, balanced with reduction, and additional to “traditional” Overseas Development Aids (ODA). This “additionality” principle is mentioned in the Climate Convention, insofar as climate change represents a new risk. However, numerous studies proved that figures officially declared as adaptation support by developed countries actually comprises “traditional” ODA projects. Besides this double counting, a part of climate finance consists in loans that will have to be reimbursed by developing countries.

The overall picture of adaptation finance is thus very complex and far from the Climate Convention spirit and from the original “polluter pays” principle. It is even more distant from impact costs: the World Bank estimated that adaptation in Least Developed Countries would require 100 billion dollar every year from 2010 to 2050. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) considers that this figure is under-estimated and should by multiplied by four to five.

Apart from the Green Fund, what are the other issues regarding adaptation in Paris?

The second main issue is to define a global adaptation goal: following a previous proposal of the African Group, such a goal would try to follow a scientific mode of reasoning and calculate the incremental costs of adaptation. Insofar as it could involve potentially abysmal amounts, this initial idea was thwarted and switched to a very different meaning: it would consist in a set of indicators to aggregate the implementation status of national adaptation measures. This divergence reflects the conflict between the “polluter pays” principle supported by the developing countries on the one hand, and the “solidarity” discourse activated by the developed countries on the other hand. Nevertheless, it could help to foster the accountability of developing countries governments.

The third issue is called “loss and damage”: some territories will face impacts that are either beyond any adaptation capacities, or only residual impacts will be possible despite adaptation measures. An international mechanism was created in COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013 in order to implement relevant approaches, but several options are currently on the table concerning topics to be included (migration, slow-onset disasters) and possible responses (insurance, early warning systems, microfinance). Again, loss and damage implies fierce struggles, even to mention it in the agreement.

How can Social Sciences and the Humanities contribute to understand these issues?

Beyond studies dealing with political tensions and with the outcomes of the Conference, social sciences and the humanities (SSH) can contribute to highlight how decisions are made in a global arena such as the COP. What are the different actors participating in shaping the discussions? What are the different framings and how different narratives cohabitate, conflict, or reinforce each other? How are these actors organised, what are their modes of action and legitimisation? There is thus a need for a broad range of SSH disciplines, including socio-anthropological approaches and science studies to conduct interviews, monographs, studies of the locations and venues, reconfigurations of epistemic communities, etc. It is the SSH which can say "who", "what", "how" COP21 develops and thus provide transparency on this crucial, yet very hidden process.

In fact, our collective ethnography during COP 21 (ClimaCOP) will deal with the role played by bilateral and multilateral aid institutions in the negotiations. These institutions have followed a progressive “acclimatisation” process, often with conceptual support of think tanks. They have developed methodologies to take climate change into account in their activities, for example through portfolio screening (to assess climate risks on projects), country vulnerability analysis, or, more broadly, through efforts to mainstream adaptation and build an internal expertise to “translate” downscaled impact models into adaptation measures. The extent and the effectiveness of this approach still need to be thoroughly evaluated. What is striking is that these aid institutions have succeeded in establishing themselves as big players of adaptation: the largest part of adaptation finance is channelled through those “traditional” ODA actors, whereas only 2% of adaptation finance goes through Funds placed under the aegis of the UNFCCC.

We would like to inquire further about their role during COP21, particularly as regards the way they promote their own agenda and achievements.

To what extent is COP 21 the tip of the iceberg as regards adaptation process to be studied by SSH?

It must first be noted that the COP 21 takes place at the end of a very rich 2015 year with three major global development-related conferences: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030) in March, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit for the post-2015 development agenda in September, and finally the COP21 in December.

What is the coherence between these different texts, with their respective status, temporality and main objectives? Though some convergences can be noted (as an example, the Sendai Framework largely quotes climate issues), there remain institutional differences that can prevent a broader integration. These institutional “silos” at global scale contrast with the entanglement of issues at local scale, where sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and climate impacts largely overlap.

The COP conferences are indeed parts of a multiscalar adaptation process. In that sense, agreements in COP have true implications on the local adaptation capacities, but they are far from being the only determinants. The latest IPCC report (Group II) shows that the notion of adaptation has become more complex. It includes now determinants like gender, age, health, social status and ethnicity, environmental degradations, technology deficits, conflicts, institutions, political systems and governance structures. The juxtaposition of biophysical and social factors led to new transdisciplinary approaches bringing together geographers, biologists, economists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists or psychologists.

Climate models still have an essential role to play, so as to raise awareness and to determine potential impacts. Nevertheless, while the models can give ideas about what to adapt to, they give no clue about how to adapt. Hence a major shift in adaptation studies has been the evolvement from impact-based studies to the analysis of contextual vulnerability and adaptation capacities. Whereas adaptation measures can often be presented as apolitical, technical and practical, they do not take place in a political, social and cultural vacuum! As an example, the notion of maladaptation highlights the fact that adaptation for a social group can be detrimental to other social groups. Hence, there is the necessity to better understand the human dimensions of climate change and the whole “chain of translation” from science to policy at different scales, by studying how decisions are made, by whom, and with what effects. In this perspective, action research projects blending climatologists, social sciences and humanities, decision-makers, populations, and NGOs can be particularly fruitful. Definitely climate change science cannot do without SSH!

Read about our Success Stories

Social Corner

twitter logo

Follow us on Twitter

Facebook logo Find us on Facebook on the EU Science & Innovation page page