Climate Negotiators Discuss “Hierarchy” of Survival

Ethiopia food scarcityCopenhagen, Denmark -- With available funds for climate change adaptation far below the amount deemed necessary for developing nations to cope in a warmer climate, international leaders have begun informally discussing the formation of a hierarchy to decide which countries would receive the earliest funds.

Such a system would likely require debate about whether aid to some nations would be financially unwise.

"Anyone who doesn't have the capacity to adapt within their household, community, or country may have to leave, or they may not make it," said Jonathan Jacoby, an Oxfam America senior policy advisor. "Governments will have to find out who's most deserving."

A draft climate treaty, released on Saturday, would mobilize about $3.3 billion for developing countries to adapt to the various threats that climate change poses to their economies, including a predicted increase in floods, drought, food scarcity, and soil erosion.

A larger amount - the European Union determined that $100 billion should be provided for both adaptation aid and low-carbon development assistance each year by 2020 - will not be set aside until negotiators finalize a legally binding climate treaty. The World Bank estimates a need of $75-100 billion each year by 2020 for adaptation alone.

A U.S. delegate recognized that unless wealthier nations appropriate more funding in the near term, the United Nations may need to form a hierarchy of need that would prioritize regions or countries based on vulnerability or population size.

Some 750 million people live in the world's 49 least-developed countries, whereas in India alone several million people live in various threatened regions, especially along the southern coasts. "How do you prioritize?" said the U.S. delegate, who requested anonymity.

The impacts of climate change are expected to vary significantly by region. Sea-level rise poses an immediate threat for low-lying islands and coastal areas, whereas glacial ice loss and the accumulation of meltwater increases flood risks in mountainous and downstream communities. Yet all of the world's most at-risk nations consider themselves to be "ground zero" for climate change.

Ainun Nishat, Bangladesh's lead negotiator on adaptation, said that priority should be given to the most vulnerable regions of Asia and Africa. He called the funding proposed for least-developed countries "peanuts."

"We are very concerned not only about the amount of funding, but where it is dispersed," said Nishat, in a press conference. "We are talking about receiving only $2-3 billion-how can we be happy?"

Ian Fry, the lead negotiator for Tuvalu, pleaded for the survival of his low-lying Pacific island nation.

"Our entire population lives within two meters of sea level," Fry said on the plenary floor in an address to negotiation host Connie Hedegaard, the Danish climate and energy minister. "I woke this morning, and I was crying, and that's not easy for a grown man to admit. The fate of my country rests in your hands."

Jairam RameshIndia Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said that funding should be "broad based" to provide support to as many at-risk nations as possible. Yet he acknowledged that higher levels of aid to India would diminish the ability for other nations to adapt.

"India should be a candidate for international finance," Ramesh said at a press conference. "But I realize that once India becomes a candidate for international finance, others are drowned out."

Most advocacy groups are not tackling the prioritization issue straight on, instead "kicking it down the road," Jacoby said. "There has got to be a much larger pie than what's on the table before we start deciding how we divide it up."

When negotiators address where to provide adaptation funding, vulnerability will have to be measured objectively, and developing countries will need to have a large voice in the decision process, Jacoby added. "If there's oversight, it's the best chance for fair allocation," he said.

The scarcity of adaptation funds will likely cause divisions among threatened communities and nations, said Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, Sudanese chair of the Group of 77, the largest developing-country negotiation bloc.

"Wealthier countries are practicing divide and rule-throw a pittance to some countries and watch them fight over the money," said Di-Aping in a press briefing.

In the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, shrinking Himalayan glaciers are filling an estimated 2,794 lakes with meltwater. The government considers 25 of these lakes at risk of overflowing or bursting.

"If two lakes join, it is going to be a disaster - not only in Bhutan, but in India and Bangladesh," said Secrétaire Permanent Mamadou Honadia, during a press conference. "We cannot escape the dangers of climate change."

In Samoa, the government is forming an early-warning flood alert system. Cyclones and sea-level rise have displaced thousands of island residents in recent years.

The Alliance of Small Island States negotiation bloc is lobbying for more adaptation funds and provisions for island residents displaced by climate change.

"It's less a question of money. It's a question of life versus death," said Fanny Héros, a campaigner with Alofa Tuvalu, a French solidarity group. "The United Nations does not recognize nations without land. If their land disappears; their nation disappears."

Ramesh said that so far, negotiators have focused largely on emissions reduction policies rather than adaptation. "Mitigation involves technology. Adaptation involves people," he said. "We find it much easier to deal with technology than people."

Stanford University master's student Brad Copithorne, a member of the Worldwatch Institute delegation, contributed research to this report.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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