Climate Change

'Adapt or die': Why climate action is so critical

A protestor's sign showing "Climate Justice Now!"

The next climate summit will be COP27 in Africa. Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Wanjira Mathai
Vice President and Regional Director for Africa, WRI
Sheela Patel
Director, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC)
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Climate Change

  • Nations have pledged to massively increase finances to fight climate change.
  • Climate action must start now and be effective, write two experts.
  • Local initiatives shouldn't be underestimated, as these could be pivotal in tackling climate change.

Wanjira Mathai is vice president and regional director for Africa for the World Resources Institute. Sheela Patel is founder director of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) and former chair of Slum Dwellers International.

COP26 saw an overdue recognition of the need to prioritise adaptation to climate change, with countries committing to double 2019 levels of adaptation finance by 2025, which is the first ever globally agreed adaptation finance goal.

However, with the UK Environment Agency’s stark warning that we must “adapt or die” resounding globally, these commitments must now be translated into significant and immediate action.

The upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports are likely to underline the importance of adaptation action in the climate crisis.

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This builds on the growing momentum towards the adaptation work needed to safeguard the lives of millions facing the impacts of climate change. Last year we saw 40 countries join the Adaptation Action Coalition (AAC), a government led coalition co-chaired by the UK and Egypt that aims to achieve a climate resilient world by 2030.

Despite this progress, much remains to be done to channel finance into locally led action and leadership, which is critical as the climate crisis intensifies. Just weeks ago, 21,000 people were impacted across Southern Africa by Storm Ana, the deadliest weather event of 2022 thus far.

With climate change potentially pushing 130 million more people below the poverty line by 2030, and well below 10% of global climate finance going to local-level action, the need to address climate injustice has never been more urgent.

A World Resources Institute systematic review of 374 community-based projects around the world found that only 22 - or about 6% of examples - featured elements aligned with locally led adaptation. But well-designed, locally led solutions can have extraordinary results.

Across the world, there are fine examples of work that we could be brought to scale. India, for instance, is often referred to as a ‘graveyard of pilots.’ There are many smart solutions and innovative ideas that come from local communities, but they tend to be confined to pilots.

The reasons for this are varied: imbalances of power, complex processes, and prioritization of Western ideas.

In Kenya, county-level climate change funds supported by government and international organizations enable rainwater harvesting and sand dam development, giving communities a reliable source of water during droughts.

In South America’s Gran Chaco region, flood protection systems supplemented by crowdsourced early warning systems ensured that millions of people remained safe in the face of serious flooding.

This region enjoys a network of local organizations, including women-led and Indigenous groups, that play decision-making roles in their region’s climate resilience, voicing their priorities and solutions, and coordinating with local governments and international funders.

We need now to recognize the value of local expertise to inform new innovations in climate adaptation, and support this through finance deployment.

In 2021, the Global Commission on Adaptation developed eight Principles for Locally Led Adaptation to guide funding devolvement. Influential donors, local civil society organisations, and government agencies including USAID, IrishAid, Canada’s Sida, and the Danish and Dutch foreign ministries have joined the UK government in signing onto the principles.

These principles are endorsed through the AAC, in particular through its locally led adaptation workstream. They provide a guide to changing top-down approaches to a model that redresses power imbalances and ensures the people, communities, and organizations at the local level – closest to climate impacts – can decide how climate finance is used.

The next challenge is how to leverage these principles to secure finance at a greater scope and volume, with changes to funding and decision-making practices, and shifts in climate finance to reach local actors and support local priorities.

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Without clear strategies for delivery, commitments risk amounting to little more than empty words. To reach our targets – and ensure finance reaches the frontlines – we require mechanisms for transparency and accountability, ensuring that climate finance flows are monitored and visible.

Countries and organizations that have already committed to the Locally Led Adaptation (LLA) principles should immediately make systemic changes to decentralize power and send finance to frontline communities.

Multilateral development banks, climate funds and other finance providers must be willing to update their structures and policies so that climate finance and development policies support locally led adaptation, urgently needed to achieve a climate resilient world by 2030.

Organizations committed to LLA will be holding one another accountable for delivering meaningful actions that ensure power and resources for local actors.

As attention turns to COP27 in Africa, now is the time to join a growing coalition of countries, multilateral organizations, and social movements endorsing the principles for Locally Led Adaptation, to demonstrate commitment to such local efforts and to put words into action in the policies and financing to be unveiled over the coming year.

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