The debate over how much public money will be available and how it will flow is critical. Unlike a renewable energy project, which can attract private capital, almost all the funding that poor countries need for building more climate-resilient societies must come from governments — either their own or foreign ones.
“We need a lot of public resources,” said Keya Chatterjee, who directs international climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. “It’s very, very hard to believe you’re going to get private money to go into the communities that will be the most devastated” by global warming.
Kit Batten, USAID’s global climate change coordinator, said the agency is doing all it can “in this tough budget cycle and budget time.” She said it has focused its aid on three types of countries — the least developed, small islands and those dependent on glaciers for fresh water supplies — to “make sure our investments are getting the biggest bang for the buck.”
Still, these countries have very different needs, even within their own regions. “If you’re a farmer trying to figure out what crops to plant, you’re going to need different information than if you’re a policymaker trying to design infrastructure along the coast,” Batten said.
USAID’s climate programs, which now make up a third of the agency’s budget, vary widely. One involves sending a Peruvian engineer with expertise in glacial lake outbursts to Nepal to advise officials on managing the same phenomenon there. Another involves advising Jamaica on a national climate-adaptation plan. The agency has funded research for a new program in Kenya and Ethiopia: Herders insure their livestock and are compensated when a certain percentage of local vegetation dries up.
Christopher B. Barrett, an economics and international agriculture professor at Cornell University who helped develop the herders’ insurance, said this financial backup is crucial as higher temperatures take their toll on African livestock. “If the intervals between droughts are shorter, it means you can still rebuild herds and remain viable,” he said.
One of USAID’s most successful programs is the SERVIR satellite-mapping program it has spearheaded with NASA. As precipitation patterns shift, glaciers melt and fires become more intense, the program allows policymakers in Central America, eastern and southern Africa and the Hindu Kush Himalaya region to predict these changes with better accuracy.
Dan Irwin, who directs the program from his base at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., describes the initiative as a “space to village” collaboration of the United States and developing nations. In the flood-prediction mapping, “We’re providing the data, and our African colleagues are doing all the work,” he said.
In many ways, poor countries have more robust policies than affluent ones on coping with global warming, because they recognized their vulnerability several years ago. For example, Bangladesh has developed an early-warning system for cyclones and built more shelters to reduce the loss of life that accompanies such extreme weather, noted Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
“It’s about being a society that’s getting its act together,” Huq said. “We are doing that, and the rest of the world needs to do it, too.”
Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer said that while adaptation can never be completely effective, storms such as Sandy have underscored the need for immediate action. “At least there’s a realization that climate change is not tomorrow’s problem, it’s today’s problem, and we need to deal with it now,” he said.
Geoff Dabelko, Ohio University’s program director for environmental studies, said the task of coping with the impact of future climate changes is far from complete.
“There’s a recognition that we’re not going to solve this problem quickly or easily,” he said. “On a large scale, you could say no one is well prepared to deal with it.”