Dutch defense against climate disaster: Adapt to the change

As nations prepare for the Copenhagen summit to halt climate change, the Netherlands is leading a fight of a different kind: How to live with it.
By Anthony Faiola and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 6, 2009

AMSTERDAM -- With the Copenhagen summit starting Monday, chances remain uncertain for a historic breakthrough in the fight to prevent climate change, but the Netherlands is leading a fight of a different kind: How to live with global warming.

As sea levels swell and storms intensify, the Dutch are spending billions of euros on "floating communities" that can rise with surging flood waters, on cavernous garages that double as urban floodplains and on re-engineering parts of a coastline as long as North Carolina's. The government is engaging in "selective relocation" of farmers from flood-prone areas and expanding rivers and canals to contain anticipated swells.

The measures are putting this water world of dikes, levies and pumps that have kept Dutch feet dry for centuries ahead of the rest of the world in adapting to harsher climates ahead.

Critics describe some of the efforts here as alarmist -- perhaps too much, too soon. But other experts see the climate defense system being built in the Netherlands as a model for other nations -- including the United States, where officials are seeking Dutch advice for how to protect New Orleans and other low-lying coastal cities.

As nations from Britain to Bangladesh come up with survival strategies, the Dutch approach underscores a shift in thinking among scientists, planners and politicians, who only a few years ago viewed talk of adapting to climate change as akin to environmental surrender.

Although almost everyone agrees that setting lower emission targets will be vital at the two-week summit in Copenhagen, a growing chorus of experts now argues that it might already be too late to prevent temperatures from rising for the next 50 to 100 years. Finding ways for nations to live with climate change could be the more pressing challenge.

Yet the effort in the Netherlands -- where officials expect to spend $100 a person per year on climate-proofing over the next century -- also illustrates one of the biggest sources of friction among the leaders, including President Obama, converging in Copenhagen for the summit: As countries move toward costly climate defense systems, how will poorer nations cover the price tag of shoring up sinking cities and irrigating drier farmlands?

Those nations are seeking billions in fresh aid from rich countries at Copenhagen, arguing that the industrialized world must compensate them for the warmer planet it is largely responsible for creating. A recent study by the World Bank found developing nations would need $75 billion to $100 billion a year over the next four decades to adapt to climate change. Project Catalyst, an offshoot of the nonprofit ClimateWorks, suggests a price from $26 billion to $77 billion a year until 2030.

"Adaptation is going to prove to be the most difficult, the most combative, and, in many ways, the most important part of the climate negotiations," said Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, adding that when it comes to global warming, "the people who are most impacted are the ones who have the least voice. That's going to emerge as a very important political dispute."

Although industrialized countries have historically said they are willing to help cover those costs, they have done little to deliver on that promise. But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement Friday that "there appears to be an emerging consensus that a core element of the Copenhagen accord should be to mobilize $10 billion a year by 2012 to support adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, particularly the most vulnerable and least developed countries that could be destabilized by the impacts of climate change. The United States will pay its fair share of that amount and other countries will make substantial commitments as well."

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which governs the international talks, created a "Least Developed Countries Fund" in 2001. But it has yet to receive the full $180 million pledged eight years ago by rich nations. At the Group of Eight meeting last year in Japan, the United States pledged to give $2 billion over three years to the World Bank for climate-related activities, including clean technology and adaptation. But the U.S. budget for fiscal year 2009 provided nothing for the adaptation fund, and the 2010 budget bills in the House and Senate -- which have yet to be reconciled -- both give $75 million to the fund, $25 million less than the administration requested. "Governments have said they want to address adaptation and they're willing to fund it, but the pledges themselves have not been enough to meet the need," said David Waskow, climate change program director for Oxfam America.

Spurred by the debate, however, nations both rich and poor are moving as never before to plan for the era of global warming.

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