Adapt to Survive

Co-authored by Tasneem Essop, WWF´s head of delegation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris

As leaders engage in this year's pivotal United Nations climate change summit, they need to remember who they represent and what they are working toward. For people and the planet we depend on, the stakes have never been higher.

Unprecedented forest fires have been tearing through Indonesia since September, affecting vast swaths of the country's population -- not to mention its valuable ecosystems. The country's Center for International Forestry Research projects a final cost of $14 billion in losses to agriculture, forestry, tourism, and transport. Not to mention an increasing burden on Indonesia's public health system as a result of the estimated one and a half billion metric tons of CO₂ which have clouded the atmosphere up to 9 November.

Meanwhile, this autumn also saw catastrophic fires rage through remote villages in the heart of Brazil's Amazon rainforest, forcing the world's most threatened tribe, the Awá-one of only 100 "uncontacted" indigenous groups worldwide-to flee from their homes.‎

2015 saw one of the strongest El Niño events on record. It is no coincidence that droughts and fires in rainforests followed soon after.

Hurricane Patricia may have been an alarm bell, or a lucky escape, but a whole matrix of factors -- from El Niño to initial shifts in regional climates -- could all have played a role in making Patricia the threat she appeared to be.

Droughts are already inevitable, and are likely to worsen. The same is true of other threats to food security, such as crop failures and mass die-offs of livestock. Attempts to redress disasters such as these will be aggravated by the fact that billions of people still have limited access to modern energy services and infrastructure.

This is not mere rhetoric. M.L. Parry, of the United Kingdom Meteorological Office, and his colleagues, projected the impacts of climate change on global food. The analysis included several different "pathways" for future socioeconomic development, all of which suggested a more unpredictable world, in terms of income level, population size, and the risk of crop failure from one year to the next.

Just last month, two new reports estimated that rising sea levels could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty and leave half a billion homeless as their homes are submerged.

What's for sure is that events such as these are increasing in severity, and will only continue to do so-for developing and developed countries alike.

Africa will bear the brunt of climate change, owing to its geographical position, low development and stubbornly widespread poverty, as highlighted by the UN Environment Program.

On the other hand, the Netherlands is one of Europe's most vulnerable nations at present, since rising sea levels could leave up to a quarter of its national territory submerged forever, threatening 10 million of its total population.

Nevertheless, economic wealth and capacity offers at least some buffer.

Wealthier nations, such as the Netherlands or Germany, have more room to breathe when it comes to financing the transition to low-emission, climate-resistant societies. Fortunately for them, their stronger, more stable economies and institutions act as a bulwark against the material impact of climate change.

It is true that as momentum builds in Paris, we are seeing unprecedented action from countries all around the world -- from the 150+ countries who have submitted emission reduction pledges, including high emitters such as Mexico and South Africa, to the rejection of the Keystone pipeline project from the Obama Administration. This represents real progress and Paris can set the stage for the further actions that will be needed over time to stem the worst impacts of climate change.

Leaders need to agree on an ambitious, legally binding instrument to drastically cut CO₂ emissions beginning in 2020 when the Kyoto Protocol expires. But this is only one piece of the climate solution puzzle we need pieced together in Paris.

The best science tells us that to have any chance of hitting the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 or 2º C, we need emissions to peak before 2020. This means we can't wait for the new climate deal to kick-in before we start ratcheting up actions to reduce emissions. There are concrete ways that leaders can set the stage for these pre-2020 actions in Paris. For example, immediately supporting scaled-up cooperative actions, especially through investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, can take us a long way in reducing emissions over the next five years. These efforts should include those implemented by non-state actors and sub-national governments.

There is a clear and direct relationship between the levels of emission reductions and the impacts of climate change. The larger the emissions gap, the more we would need scaled-up actions to adapt, build resilience and deal with losses.

In real terms, therefore, the Paris summit must establish greater global solidarity with the poor and vulnerable across the world, but especially in developing countries, particularly vulnerable island states and less developed countries.

The business world's motto of "adapt to survive" has never seemed more apt.

So adaptation to climate change-and to an increasingly volatile El Niño -- must address disasters, right off the bat. Strategies must aim to reduce loss of life, mitigate the destruction of ecosystems, and bolster entire economies.

In Paris, we need agreement on a global goal for adaptation and a stand-alone mechanism for dealing with loss and damage.

Sooner or later, rich and poor countries alike will lose if average global temperatures increase beyond that crucial and already dangerous marker of 2ºC.

One of the year's most eye-catching public interventions on the matter came from Pope Francis, whose encyclical, Laudato Si, asked and answered the question -- "What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us?" -- rejecting "piecemeal" approaches to global issues such as the world's impending environmental and social crisis and working together in solidarity for real transformational change is our only option.

The transformations are already happening. "Adapt to survive" is not just an appropriate slogan for our present situation. It is an imperative.